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Rebecca Gould, Writers and Rebels: The Literature of Insurgency in the Caucasus

Yale University Press, 2016, 352 pages
Lina Tsrimova
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Rebecca Gould, Writers and Rebels: The Literature of Insurgency in the Caucasus, Yale University Press, 2016, 352 pages

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Literature
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Editor's notes

Pipss is grateful to Marat Iliyasov who edited this book review.

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  • 1 Layton, Susan. Russian Literature and Empire: Conquest of the Caucasus from Pushkin to Tolstoy. Cam (...)

1 “Literary Caucasus”1 has recently received much attention from the specialists of the region, but only a few of them have addressed local anti-colonial literatures. Thus, the book by Rebecca Gould is highly original in considering literatures of Chechnya, Dagestan, and Georgia in comparative perspective. The author can also be praised for the great diversity of her sources in different languages. Rebecca Gould has attempted not only to transpose or verify a number of concepts or a theory such as Orientalism, but also to develop new ones. Transgressive sanctity is one of these concepts, which according to the author, can provide a key for a better understanding of the link between the political history, violence, and literary tradition of the local populations. Rebecca Gould suggests reconsidering the relations between literature, politics, and history and to acknowledge the role of aesthetics in shaping Caucasian politics from the second half of the nineteenth century and through the Soviet period up to the present.

2 In the first chapter, the author examines the case of Chechen literary tradition that according to the author generated the central concept of transgressive sanctity “when indigenous law is emptied of its old meaning and filled with new content” (pp. 4-5). This concept appears

“In the aftermath of Shamil’s Imamate and from within the vacuum of authority (…) Stated briefly, transgressive sanctity is the process, through which sanctity is made transgressive and transgression is made sacred through violence against the state. Through this process, violence is aestheticized and aesthetics is endowed with the capacity to generate violence. Beyond signifying transgression again an externally imposed legal order, the violence entailed in transgressive sanctity intervenes in local laws” (p. 3).

3 Before the Russian expansion in the Caucasus, indigenous law, or adat, considered abreks as criminals to be condemned to exile, while the wars and in their aftermath, local societies came to regard the abreks as anti-colonial fighters. We should note that colonial authorities tried as well to transform the meaning of this term, by depicting indigenous people as “abreks” who infringe different regulations and laws. They also applied a method of collective punishment for an alleged collaboration with abreks.

4The most famous Chechen abreks appeared later, at the beginning of the twentieth century, with the figure of Zelimkhan as the prototype for a number of historical and literary accounts about abreks. The author examines some of these accounts produced by Ossetian and Chechen writers.

5 Transgressive sanctity was first generated within the Chechen culture, but later played an important role in neighboring territories particularly in Dagestan during a series of rebellions between 1877 and 1921. However, the memories of Caucasian anti-colonial wars as well as the perception of major figures of resistance such as those of Shamil or Hadji Murad diverged (and still do) among different groups of Chechen and Daghestani populations. Shamil’s was perceived by many Chechens as a traitor because of his surrender, while most of Daghestanis (especially within Avar communities), considered him to be one the greatest freedom fighters of the time, despite everything. Furthermore, as the author notices, Daghestanis have been much better acquainted with the Islamic legal and literary traditions (in Arab language) than the Chechens, whose notions of insurgency were more rooted in local oral and legal traditions. Therefore,

  • 2 Fiqh: understanding of Islamic law [Editor’s note]

“While transgressive sanctity inflected nearly every aspect of Chechen insurgency, the Daghestani discourse pertaining jihad was modulated by other legal norms. That grounded as it was in rules, regulations, and codified law, Daghestan fiqh2 was also more adept than Chechen transgressive sanctity at accommodating the colonial legal order in part accounts for Daghestan’s comparatively less traumatic encounter with colonial modernity” (p. 103).

  • 3 “The imperial theme, in other words, was quickly linked to a range of other questions, from formal (...)

6 In Georgia, despite the Christian cultural background and literary history of the country, some writers and poets such as Titsian Tabidze (1895–1937) could identify themselves with the Georgian stereotypes of Chechen and Dagestani religious warriors (p. 193), who fought against the order naturalized by colonial rule (p. 21). Thus, transgressive sanctity functioned as an anticolonial sublime (p. 183) enabling Tabidze and other poets to rearrange the relationship between politics and aesthetics in their poetry. In other words, transgressive sanctity functioned as the counterpart of the Romantic imperial sublime3.

7 While in the pre-Soviet and Soviet period, transgressive sanctity was the product of a purely masculine culture, in the post-Soviet northern Caucasus, women started to embody the figures of martyrs (shakhidki): “This shift entailed a turn away from the textual aesthetics of insurgency and toward a visual glorification of violence” (p. 220). Therefore, the transition to a female form of martyrdom during the recent wars in the Northern Caucasus marks the limits of a transgressive sanctity that “ends by producing a legal anarchy even more destructive than colonial rule” (p. 235).

  • 4 W. Benjamin, Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms. Autobiographical Writings. Edited par Peter Demetz. Fi (...)

8 The author’s understanding of transgressive sanctity is based on the ideas of Walter Benjamin who appears quite ambiguous in this account. In his Critique of violence, Walter Benjamin postulates that “The task of a critique of violence can be summarized as that of expounding its relation to law and justice”4, though considering police violence, he endorses the idea of a type of violence that has little to do with law:

  • 5 Ibid., p. 287.

“Unlike law, which acknowledges in the "decision" determined by place and time a metaphysical category that gives it a claim to critical evaluation, a consideration of the police institution encounters nothing essential at all. Its power is formless, like its nowhere tangible, all-pervasive, ghostly presence in the life of civilized states. […] All violence as a means is either lawmaking or law-preserving. If it lays claim to neither of these predicates, it forfeits all validity”5.

  • 6 « …Là (about governmentality), il ne s'agit pas d'imposer une loi aux hommes, il s'agit de disposer (...)

9At this point, his description of violence seems to resemble Foucault’s to whom Gould also refers. She suggests that transgressive sanctity should be exposed in its relationship with colonial governmentality (in foucauldian sense) that should function according to a certain legal system. It is noteworthy that Foucault conceived governmentality as different from sovereignty and law though6. The relationship between “colonial governmentalityand the law in the Caucasus, thus, should be better elucidated. Were abreks’ actions directed against the colonial law as represented in governmentality or, rather against the governmentality itself (with its violence) that has little to do with law?

10Answering this question, the author suggests revising the concept of “transgressive sanctity” in its relation to modernity as represented by “colonial governmentality” as well as by “textuality”. Rebecca Gould analyzes the novelty of this concept and the context of its appearance. But she pays little attention to its “archaic” or “traditional” dimension although she notes that “Chechen insurgency was suffused by indigenous culture and folklore” (p. 102). She quotes only one Chechen folk poem in its English translation, not from the original language but from its Russian translation (p. 272) as mentioned in a footnote. The analysis of the original text, however, in its relation to the Russian translation might have better reflected local perception of the abrek’s figure and of “transgressive sanctity”. Such analysis might have enlightened Chechen genuine concepts of insurgency as well as the way Chechen writers tried to adapt/contest Soviet ideology and modernity in their translations.

  • 7 S. Layton, Russian Literature and Empire: Conquest of the Caucasus from Pushkin to Tolstoy. Cambrid (...)
  • 8 J. A. Hiddleston, Understanding postcolonialism, Montréal/Kingston, McGill-Queen's University Press (...)

11However, it is worth highlighting that throughout her work, Rebecca Gould is attentive to local understanding of anti-colonial insurgency. She adopts an ethnographic perspective by combining the exploration of literary archives with observations and interviews with locals. By doing this, she steps out from the dominant studies of Russian Orientalism regarding the Caucasus even though one can acknowledge that some of them, such as a study of major Russian writers by S. Layton, has been very fruitful7. Yet even Layton’s study was somehow limited by the risk of reaffirming colonial domination — a concern often expressed about the overwhelming metropolitan perspective on colonial history8. Gould’s chapter analyzing contemporary history of transgressive sanctity incarnated in female figures of martyrs (shakhidki) illustrates her ethnographic approach and particular attention to local perceptions of violence.

  • 9 V. V. Lapin, Armiia Rossii v Kavkazskoi voine XVIII-XIX vv., Sankt-Peterburg: Evropeiskii Dom, 2008
  • 10 As for example, D. R. Brower, and E. J. Lazzerini. Russia’s Orient: Imperial Borderlands and People (...)

12Her approach, thus, differs from the approaches adopted by the specialists of the region as Vladimir Lapin (“historical-military anthropology”)9 and historians of Russian Orientalism in the Caucasus, who rarely cite the sources in local languages10. Thus, the perspective of literary anthropology, allows Gould to rehabilitate local anti-colonial literatures and to propose a better understanding of the genealogy and political imaginary of violence in the Caucasus.

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Notes

1 Layton, Susan. Russian Literature and Empire: Conquest of the Caucasus from Pushkin to Tolstoy. Cambridge Studies in Russ. Lit. Cambridge etc: Cambridge univ. press, 1994.

2 Fiqh: understanding of Islamic law [Editor’s note]

3 “The imperial theme, in other words, was quickly linked to a range of other questions, from formal problems of language, genre, style, and lyric subjectivity to the connection, within an autocratic state, between authority and authorship. This range of issues, both formal and ideological, is the subject of this book: together they point to a specifically Russian tradition of relating poetics, rhetoric, and politics. This tradition, which I propose to call the imperial … ” In H. Ram, The imperial sublime: a Russian poetics of empire. Madison, Wisc.: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003, pp. 4-5.

4 W. Benjamin, Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms. Autobiographical Writings. Edited par Peter Demetz. First Edition. New York: Schocken, 1986, p. 277

5 Ibid., p. 287.

6 « …Là (about governmentality), il ne s'agit pas d'imposer une loi aux hommes, il s'agit de disposer des choses, c'est-à-dire d'utiliser plutôt des tactiques que des lois, ou d'utiliser au maximum des lois comme des tactiques ; faire en sorte, par un certain nombre de moyens, que telle ou telle fin puisse être atteinte », in Foucault, Michel. Sécurité, Territoire, Population. Paris: Le Seuil, 2004, p. 102.

7 S. Layton, Russian Literature and Empire: Conquest of the Caucasus from Pushkin to Tolstoy. Cambridge Studies in Russ. Lit., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

8 J. A. Hiddleston, Understanding postcolonialism, Montréal/Kingston, McGill-Queen's University Press (Understanding Movements in Modern Thought), 2009.

9 V. V. Lapin, Armiia Rossii v Kavkazskoi voine XVIII-XIX vv., Sankt-Peterburg: Evropeiskii Dom, 2008.

10 As for example, D. R. Brower, and E. J. Lazzerini. Russia’s Orient: Imperial Borderlands and Peoples, 1700-1917. Indiana-Michigan Series in Russian and East European Studies. Bloomington, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1997.

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References

Electronic reference

Lina Tsrimova, « Rebecca Gould, Writers and Rebels: The Literature of Insurgency in the Caucasus  », The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 19 | 2018, Online since 16 January 2019, connection on 18 November 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/pipss/4735

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About the author

Lina Tsrimova

EHESS

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Copyright

CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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