Michael S. Gorham, Ingunn Lunde and Martin Paulsen (eds.): Digital Russia: The language, culture and politics of new media communication.

Michael S. Gorham, Ingunn Lunde and Martin Paulsen (eds.): Digital Russia: The language, culture and politics of new media communication.

Routledge 2014, ISBN-13: 978-1-1382-0600-7, 292 p.

Author
Aivaras Žukauskas
Keywords
Russia; New Media; Runet; Russian Internet; Russian Studies; Media Studies; Linguistic Studies.

In recent years, with the rising prevalence of social networks, the study of digital cultures has rapidly picked up. Besides the works of Lev Manovich, whose The Language of New Media (2001) has become an early classic of the field, authors such as Vincent Miller (Understanding Digital Culture, 2011), Mark Deuze (Media Life, 2012) and others have been contributing to the growth of New Media Studies.

However, when it comes to digital cultures, the study of them has been mostly a Western-centric endeavor. American digital cultures are the most popular objects of study, with the Chinese culture also gaining attention (e.g., Wu‘s Chinese Animation, Creative Industries, and Digital Culture, 2017). Given the influence of US and Chinese markets, these tendencies come as no surprise but also show a necessity to expand the studies geographically. This is especially poignant in the case of the Runet, or the Russian-language internet, which includes Russia and regions going under the moniker of the ‘post-Soviet’ space.

Digital Russia: The language, culture and politics of new media communication tries to fill the above-mentioned gap by providing analysis from different perspectives about the Russian-language Internet. It is an attempt at beginning the dissection of the Runet and its culture(s), with a goal to connect specific phenomena to the social trends in the Russian society and beyond. The latter is one of the most intriguing parts of the book, especially when looking at recent attempts from Russia of providing the “Russian World” versions of political, social and cultural narratives in a globally politicized context (e.g. the occupation of Crimea, aggression in Eastern Ukraine and so on). Coming out as a result of a four-year research project “The Future of Russian: Language Culture in the Era of New technology”, the collected volume of articles focuses on:

(...) integrating current CMC [computer-mediated communication] research with Runet studies and thus contributing to the internationalization of both sub-disciplines. In addition to offering a basic introduction to key subsectors of Russian internet culture, it also seeks to answers to broader questions: How do new technologies influence the ways we communicate, interact, and create? How are linguistic practices shaped by the tension between social context and new technologies? How are offline events represented, recreated, and transformed in online contexts? How do linguistic practices shape and transform political, social, and cultural reality? To what extent are the features and trends discussed in these pages specific to Russia, Russian [language], and the Russian internet, and to what extent do they reflect more global linguistic and social practices? (p. 4-5)

The book provides analysis of three different, yet tightly interconnected spheres of digital cultures and language in Russia: language practices (e.g. internet slang and humor), cultural endeavors (e.g. the digitalization of cultural heritage), and connections of digital cultures to the political life in Russia (e.g. use of social networks by politicians).

The main chunk of the book is preceded by 2 introductory parts, aiming for contextualization of the Russian language internet on a more general level. Taking the first 2 parts for introduction proves to be a prudent decision by the editors of the volume. Part I, titled “Contexts” gives the reader a historico-political perspective over the development of new communication technologies in Russia. Vlad Strukov’s “The (im)personal connection: computational systems and (post-)Soviet cultural history” gives a fascinating look into the trends driving the development of computer technologies in Russia, going back to the Soviet times. This allows to vividly establish the tensions between the individual and the collective, prevalent to this day on the Runet, even after the internet has become wide-spread as a mass cultural phenomenon in the country (p. 25). Natalya Konradova’s and Henrike Schmidt’s “From the utopia of autonomy to a political battlefield: towards a history of the ‘Russian internet’”, builds upon the conclusions of the previous text by adding the element of politics. Here, the authors assert that the Runet, while first seen as a venue mostly for political alternatives, from the year 2000 and onwards became a space for political struggle and control. The authors of the article point to the fact that the Runet, in addition to being a space for political transgression, is also becoming a strong platform for crisis communication and political propaganda, providing an expansion to the now widely-known thesis of Maxim Pozdorovkin in Our New President (2018, Russia), stating that the famous Ostankino station in Moscow has become the second workplace of the Russian President. All in all, both articles in Part I provide a strong general overview of the digital space in Russia, which is a necessary backbone for anyone entering Runet studies.

Part II of the book descends into the intermediate level, by focusing on different social network (SNS) services on the Runet. The internally developed platforms of Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki, as well as the blogosphere (Livejournal) receive the most attention, with Twitter also getting some analysis in connection to social action in Russia. Contributions in this chapter all subscribe to the thesis that digital communities on the Runet provide a sense of social theatre (not necessarily causing any ‘real’ change) with some networks (e.g. Odnoklassniki) being considered to represent “lower” social classes by Russian internet users (p. 76-77 in Tine Roesen’s and Vera Zvereva’s “Social network sites on the Runet: exploring social communication”). Although it does not go deep into the political aspects of these networks, the overview of digital media platforms on the Runet provides a concise, yet informative view of the Russian internet social landscape.

Part III “Language and diversity” is aimed at exploring various (socio)linguistic practices spread throughout the Runet. The most peculiar of all the parts in the book, “Language and diversity” starts strong yet struggles to establish any conclusion which would go beyond technical discussions. Aleksandrs Berdicevskis’ “The written turn: how CMC actuates linguistic change in Russian” provides some interesting insights in speech innovations driven by online communication, based on Labov’s distinction between triggering events, governing principles, driving forces when it comes to language innovation. The text “Slangs go online, or the rise and fall of the Olbanian language” focuses on a short-lived Russian internet language fashion, not entirely unlike the more prevalent leet speak of the Western digital environment. The authors of the article maintain that the Olbanian language, although widely used only in 2004-2006, legitimized the countercultural practices of incorrect language, providing techniques for opposing authorities and fostering creativity. However, besides some examples of cursing and wordplay, the authors maintain that attitudes towards Russian grammar and linguistic norms were changed by the Olbanian slang without making any visible traces on the offline language. However, no substantial data supporting this conclusion is provided (p. 137) which raises questions about authors’ approach to the problems of cause and effect, and interfering factors, as well as putting doubts on broader applicability of the article’s conclusions.

Same could be said for Ingunn Lunde’s “Language on display: On the performative character of computer mediated metalanguage” which focuses on “language about language” on the Russian Internet. It analyzes a set of videos on YouTube discussing the Russian language and Internet user comments under the videos themselves. Besides the questionable method and data, the proposed thesis of people trying to be “deliberately” creative on online platforms remains unanswered - how can comments under a few videos reflect broader shift from “informative” to “performative” language (p. 153)? The last text of Part III, Martin Paulsen’s “Translit: computer-mediated diagraphia on the Runet” provides an interesting analysis on the transliteration practices on the Russian internet, giving a peek into both the linguistic and political aspects of the Runet. However, Part III does not give any major insights into the Russian internet language besides a collection of examples which are not really connected to the social trends in Russia.

Part IV is probably the most specialized segment of the whole book, with 3 articles focusing on literary techniques and archiving platforms. Starting with an overview of the “unprofessional” forms of internet literature on the Runet (set’eratura), it later moves into examples of online-based political satire and poetry, which remain among the few platforms left for political opposition in Russia. However, although analysis provides a good overview of different discussions between the proponents of “traditional” literature and “dilettantes”, one cannot feel that the linguistic analysis aspect is lacking, as it mostly provides translations, which may prove to be detrimental to reflecting the peculiarities and multi-layered meanings prevalent in the Russian language vocabulary. Knowing the importance of the Aesopian language in authoritarian regimes (Klivis, 2010), this feels like a lost opportunity. Part IV concludes discussing the literature and archiving platforms on the Runet with some reflections regarding the colonial Googlization affecting non-English literary spaces globally (p. 224-225).

The concluding Part V of the book is focusing on the political aspects of the Russian digital cultures, on both the domestic and international processes. 2 texts in the chapter focus on digital platform usage for politics and digital discussions about historical memory. Both of the articles, written by Michael S. Gorham and Ellen Rutten respectively, provide interesting insights into the tensions within Russian digital platforms between fostering representative democracy on one side and entrenchment of the current regime on the other. These tensions, contradictions and shifts are further reflected in memory debates on the Runet, which are often used for expressing sociopolitical positions, sometimes in connection to contemporary events, adding some wrinkles to the typical analysis of historical memory dynamics in Russia.

The last part, however, loses cohesion as the book concludes with an article by Dirk Uffelmann titled “Is there a Russian cyber empire?”. In it, the author outlines the prevalence of the Russian language and other digital soft power techniques in the neighboring Central Asia countries as examples. Although lacking in variety (similar examples from Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan are used, excluding, for example, the relatively autonomous Uzbekistan’s digital culture(s)) and missing some crucial analysis of digital media techniques used by Russia (for example, RT and other digital media), the article gives a good overview of the Runet trends, which are relevant when assessing the “hybrid” techniques employed by Russia today. However, one feels, that analysis of Russian cyberimperialism would have benefitted from a deeper application of Negri and Hardt’s Empire (2000), which is barely mentioned in the article. As it was demonstrated by Dyer-Witherford and De Peuter (2009), theses explicated in Empire can provide some interesting interpretations on global digital media trends, outside of the Western sphere.

All in all, this collection of articles, much more about “language” and less about “culture” and “politics” is an unfocused, yet much-needed entry into the studies of digital culture and politics in the Russian-speaking world. In addition to presenting a not always effective (Part III being a case in point), but interesting perspective, Digital Russia provides mostly valuable insight into today’s trends and techniques employed by Russia. Digital Russia gives a good start of proving, that the Runet has its own logic worth investigating further by social, cultural, and political scientists.

Aivaras Žukauskas

Vilnius University

aivars.zukauskas@gmail.com

Bio

Aivaras Žukauskas (MA in Political Science) is a PhD student at Vilnius University in Lithuania. Fields of interest: political philosophy, critical theory, biopolitics, new media studies, game studies.

Filmography

Pozdorovkin, Maxim. 2018. Our New President. Third Party Films, Russia.

Bibliography

Deuze, Mark. 2012. Media Life. Cambridge, Malden.

Dyer-Witherford, Nick and De Peuter, Greg. 2009. Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games. Minneapolis.

Klivis, Edgaras. 2010. “Destructive adaptation: censorship and the ways to resist it in Lithuanian theatre of the Soviet period” (in Lithuanian), Menotyra 17(2): 124-131.

Manovich, Lev. 2001. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, London.

Miller, Vincent. 2011. Understanding Digital Culture. London.

Negri, Antonio and Hardt, Michael. 2000. Empire. Cambridge.

Wu, Weihua. 2017. Chinese Animation, Creative Industries, and Digital Culture. New York.

Suggested Citation

Žukauskas, Aivaras. 2018. Review: “Michael S. Gorham, Ingunn Lunde and Martin Paulsen (eds.): Digital Russia: The language, culture and politics of new media communication.” Women Cutting Movies: Editors from Romania, Croatia and Russia (ed. by Adelheid Heftberger and Ana Grgic). Special Issue of Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 7. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17892/app.2018.0007.151

URL: http://www.apparatusjournal.net/

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