ethnographic notes from kazakhstan

i’ve been coming here for more than 10 years now, but it was only during this visit that i fully understood how a particular post-colonial anxiety towards language and tradition has engendered new symbolic currencies, exchanged as a means to power within both corporate and familial contexts. i’m unsure if this is local to the people i mix with (the urban kazakh middle class of almaty and, specifically, the social circle of my in-laws) or if this is more common: at any rate, the following observations are biased as my wife and her family are from this country and no doubt anything i say is tarnished by the brush of that local psychosexual relationship.

primary observation.

the use of russian is still widespread as a first language, particularly amongst the urban middle classes whose parents and grandparents held positions of authority within the former ussr. however, proficiency in the kazakh language is now essential to existing comfortably within the new nation. it has become an explicit bar to a government career: one cannot become a rector in a university without being able to speak kazakh to an advanced degree. it is also an implicit bar to a career in business, where discussion between two kazakh parties may utilize russian for technicalities but, when things become more formal (an agreement is to be reached, say), good kazakh is de rigeur — it looks bad if an entrepreneur is unable to speak well. and at social functions (from wedding functions to family get togethers), kazakhs maintain the russian tradition of making toasts to each other but are increasingly treating the use of russian in such a context is unacceptable, particularly where the function involves a circle wider than immediate family.

by and large, this linguistic has no evolved directly as part of some central government policy. there are policies on required use of the kazakh language in government, but the norm’s effectiveness is not due to that. the norm constitutes part of differential line within the wider social field of national awakening/self-reflection/self-reformation. the norm is enforced within this social field as part of what is universally understood as “good manners” — it is now socially embarrassing to speak broken kazakh both at a university departmental meeting and at a wedding.

the norms around proficiency are not recent — they are part of an obvious and inevitable post-colonial reclamation of a kazakh national identity and language — but it appears to be only in the last few years that the psychological fallout is being felt.

most highly skilled russians left the country after it became a nation: those who remained tend to occupy working class roles. these russians don’t feel any impact. the impact is felt — and arguably aimed squarely at — those unfortunate kazakhs whose parents failed teach them the kazakh language, believing so strongly in the staying power of the communist state that they assumed the soviet lingua franca was all that would be necessary. this was a reasonable assumption. before the 1980’s, kazakh as a first language would have been a distinct disadvantage, a sign of a lack of status (educational, economic, social).

the kazakhs who consequently speak weak kazakh therefore tend to be from a group formally highly regarded under the previous regime. and it is they who are the new losers under the new differential. their loss is partly economic (barred from certain forms of business) but largely psychological. the children of the soviets feel bad that they can’t speak it properly, they feel intimidated the their peers who can and, in those situations where they have no choice but to try to speak kazakh, one can hear fear and anxiety in their stumbling attempts, and feel the judgmental undercurrent from the peers who surround them.

these kazakhs are in an age group that spans approximately 35-70 — those who are older spoke kazakh as a first language and those are younger are being taught kazakh at school if not at home. it will take about 50 years for the country to be rid of the soviet legacy completely. unlike the educated russians who left earlier, they don’t have another land to go to.

however, they are the necessary and novel scapegoat for an important cultural and national reevaluation. arguably, without their palpable lack of kazakh, there wouldn’t be an opportunity for those with a possession of kazakh to assert themselves and gain power in this reevaluation — purely through speech. for example, indigenous australian culture suffered so severe a genocide that very few australian aboriginals speak the languages of their ancestors — there cannot be any reclamation or new social reoordering. similarly, the british or dutch colonizers of india or indonesia did not enforce any linguistic policies, so their departure did not render any group more or less privileged with respect to possession of language.

kazakhstan is somewhat unique in this sense, that its native language has become such an effective currency. i assert that the effectiveness of this currency is dependent upon a designated group that possesses three traits: a former powerbase (and former educational and social status), socially palpable linguistic impotence and a recognized field of anxiety, fear and stigmatization of impotence.

i’m tempted to generalize here and say that all forms of symbolic capital require these galvinizing properties when being effectively floated on the market of practice.

secondary observation.

i have a secondary observation, approximately regarding the same middle class of kazakhstan. when regarded along the axis of linguistic capital, it was easy to understand one side as a the former soviet elite, now increasingly stigmatized and the other as new literates who possess the language. however, in the following observation, the lines are more blurred as the currency being exchanged is less concrete (or at least largely not possessed by anyone).

there’s a secondary form of symbolic currency being traded here: that of “folk tradition”. i’ve been attending a wedding ceremony where both parties have attempted — in outright competitive spirit — to “out-folk” the other. when one party wishes to dismiss or bad mouth the efforts of the other, they will criticize their literacy in the traditions of their ancestors. “they are wrong, they placed the rope at the entry to the house of the bride, when it should have been at the exit.” “they have failed to understand the financial rules of the bride’s dowry.”

10 years ago, this would not have been a criticism: there was some folk tradition followed within the urban areas, but it was minimal and concerned largely with business and health transactions (superstitions around protection from the evil eye, for example). a wedding would have been a source of tension between two families — but that tension would not manifest itself in competition over proficiency in the wedding traditions of the ancestors. this is largely because these traditions (unlike the kazakh language) have largely been lost completely to the urban middle class in the face of the soviet project.

the re-valuation of tradition as a currency is impacted by the fact that it is a rare commodity: in fact, a purely imported commodity from the village territories to the urban zone of folk impossibility. in the case of this wedding, consultants have been brought in. a local village woman (a distant relative) has been seconded, residing with one family to ensure the rules of the game are correctly implemented. on the other side of the wedding, the bride’s family have also seconded distant village relatives, but, in addition, paid for a man to function as both mc but to also offer instruction on how the affair should be conducted authentically.

the fact that groups are proactively completing with each other on folk proficiency shows that there are the potential for a healthy economy. however, it does not bode well for the folk tradition itself, which is now rendered a second order derivative as opposed to cold hard cash. the fact that there is competition over who embodies a tradition best means that there is no tradition to be embodied. a folk tradition is an habitus — a set of active norms — that all parties engage in almost as a muscle reflex: it’s not something reflected upon or judged as “better” or “worse”. if a tradition is not uniformly inhabited, then it is not a tradition.

the fact that there is this competition is obvious post-colonial fallout, unique to kazakhstan. it’s not so much that the urban elite lost their folk tradition — it is that, as an artificially created, urban elite, first a creation of the soviets, now rendered independent, they cannot inhabit this tradition. they’d have to cease to be who they are in order to inhabit the traditions of the villagers.

this is different from, say, the urban elites of saudi arabia, pakistan or indonesia, who evolved into their own forms of tradition, no doubt different from the villages, but still uniformly inhabited. bedouin mother-in-laws will not quarrel with each other over who understands the traditional rules of marriage better — they will quarrel over the implementation of these rules, but not on who inhabits them better — inhabitation is simply a given.

i am unsure if the current state of affairs is a post-colonial pathology, a derivative fetish or simply untenable in the longer term. derivative fetishes (trading on commodities that are not actually owned by anyone) shifts us more into the realm of religion: and are therefore eminently useful as a means to control … but i currently see what is happening as too unsophisticated to be a meme that lasts more than a few decades.

(in this sense, the closest situation i can think of is in the west, with convert muslims, with their school play medieval beards and farcical jibabs, competing with each other on who understands the sunnah better than another. because they compete, there is no universal inhabitation, and their islam is a farce.)




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