June 15, 2010

A paper presented at the American Comparative Literature Association's Annual Conference

Nelli Sargsyan
ACLA Annual Meeting
New Orleans, Louisiana
April 3, 2010

“Interrogating the Cosmopolitan: Curving and Carving a Queer Discursive Space within the Armenian Heteronormative Nationalism”

Like many, I am skeptical of the term cosmopolitanism: rather, of the ways in which it is most often defined, theorized, and applied: focused on nurturing “a citizen of the world,” as a habit of mind and way of life; referencing Kant’s ethic of hospitality; or Mignolo’s planetary conviviality (Strand 2010), transcending the local loyalties, being part of a global community. But, who is this “citizen,” what is their class, ethnicity, gender, race, and so on? How do they engage with the global? What constitutes this “world”? Certain regions, cities, networks? Is it possible “to be a stranger nowhere”? From the perspective of various feminisms, these definitions point more to those excluded and unaccounted for. Could it be, then, that the different images of cosmopolitanism are ideological attempts to conceal the contradictory lived experiences (Koczanowicz in Strand 2010)? Why yes, or why not?

The term cosmopolitanism itself has been critically dissected for some time now (as Western cosmopolitanism vs. Eastern; new cosmopolitanism vs. old; cosmopolitanism from the center vs. from the periphery; from the top vs. from the bottom, and so on). More often than not, however, cosmopolitanism itself as an ideal and practice has been gendered heterosexual and with that, often male, and with that, of particular race, or of particular class, hence hardly inclusive, even when termed rooted, situated, flowing from the local rather than in opposition to it. Often heterosexist itself, and often racist, not recognizing the situated differences of the particularities, and the uneven participation that people have in what is termed cosmopolitan through their lived experiences, it does not render itself as a useful lens for analysis. For the purposes of my paper, in which I deal with counter-hegemonic female voices that challenge the imposed monolithic heteronormativity of the nationalist discourse of the Republic of Armenia, I find it more useful to let these counter-hegemonic female voices unhinge the cosmopolitan.

Although the Criminal Code of the Republic of Armenia has been modified in its treatment of gender minorities, the societal contempt for non-heterosexual people is still daunting. Unlike the concept of male gayness, female non-heterosexuality has been rejected a discursive space within the nationalist heteronormativity of the Armenian society. In this paper I explore the identities that a group of (Armenian) lesbian, bisexual, and straight women artists invoke in different spaces, historicizing queer women’s presence and promoting their advocacy work for queer women on their online blog.

I attempt to understand how and how successfully these artists, art critics, writers, and activists articulate and represent their identities in an LGBT ignorant or condemning Armenian society. I argue that although locally rooted and articulated, the Armenian queer artists, through their use of techno-, media-, and ideoscapes – sharing information on similar struggles and various successful untanglings of these struggles, nevertheless, route towards their imagined global communities of women, artists, LGBT people that sustain their local struggles and advocacy. In so doing, the artists act as democratic agents in the local society through various activist and art projects, more successfully representing their queer identities among many other identities they articulate, at the same time complicating and nuancing what it means to be cosmopolitan.

I address the various layers of my research question through analyzing the material that can be found on the Women Oriented Women (or WOW) collective’s project blog called “Queering Yerevan” along with the articles and other blogs that have been written regarding and in response to this collective, its events, and blog.

The societal attitudes coupled with the homophobic law enforcers hold heterosexuality as the only acceptable form of relationship and frame homosexuality as an illness or a national security threat and complicate the coming out of many homosexual individuals in Armenia. Out of the estimated 4,000 registered NGOs in Armenia, only a few have openly campaigned for and supported the human rights of LGBT people. Homosexuality is a taboo in the Armenian society that people often share with very few family members and friends. Albeit changing, the traditional roles designated for women (those of mother and wife) are still predominant.

The concept of human rights is perceived by many in Armenia as a Western notion, and the closeness with Europe means threatened institution of marriage and ethnocultural identity (ILGA report 35). Mass media contributes to these circulating homophobic discourses of impending loss of cultural identity. So does the Armenian Apostolic Church, promoting and nurturing the already existing homophobia by framing homosexuality as a “grave sin” (34). Although under the Armenian constitution, all Armenian citizens irrespective of sexual orientation and religion among other things, have the same right to legal protection, in actuality LGBT people do not have any guarantee that their rights will be protected by state institutions (such as courts) or law enforcement agencies. Politicians often employ the word “homosexual” in an attempt to denigrate their opponents.

Homosexuality has very limited coverage in the Armenian mass media. If the topic is covered, oftentimes it is tainted with scorn and irony. The Armenian LGBT people have very limited influence on the kind of information that goes out regarding their sexual orientation and gender identity. Most importantly, within this hegemonic heteronormativity the undesirability and unacceptability of “homosexuality” is gendered “male,” depriving women of a discursive site of “non-heterosexuality” (Butler 1991).

Data Analysis

As I mentioned earlier in the paper, “Queering Yerevan” is a WOW project aiming at queering the self and the city of Yerevan of 2000s that challenges the established topographies of both the urban space and the body of the individual within that space. This is an attempt of re-imagining the physical space differently from the normatively imposed topographies. The authors re-imagine their map(s) and signal various scales by referencing and blogging on: (1) local (Armenian) and international arts, artistic experimentation, writing, film, and exhibition in general; (2) issues of interest to women and women artists; (3) feminisms; (4) Diaspora Armenian artists and writers; (5) LGBT issues (both local and global; both art related and general); (6) human rights (locally and regionally).

The WOWers’ awareness of the marginalized role of women in general, and the societal lack of knowledge of or interest in queer women, in particular, inform the strategies that they employ in the articulation of their identities. Hence, through their project, they seek to foster a safer environment for queer women in Armenia, where “a) queer women are oppressed by both women and men and; b) queer women’s culture is unknown to or misunderstood by the majority of Armenians (Queering Yerevan, accessed on March 24, 2009),” echoing Rich’s claim that heterosexism is a result of male dominance over both female and male nonheteronormativity (Risman 2004).

The bloggers are physically located in different countries on at least three continents: Egypt in Africa, Armenia in Europe or in Asia depending on your perspective, and the US in North America, to name a few. Sometimes the new places and spaces that they travel to or through, whether within the country they reside in or outside of it, trigger issues relevant to the project of queering the physical space and self, so they blog from these newly queered and queering locations.

The blog is organized in two languages: Armenian and English with occasional posts of exhibition or festival schedule of events in Europe, or an article about the collective in German, Dutch, or French. Most often than not, the posts are in English and Armenian. Sometimes, however, they are only in Armenian or English. So why do the bloggers code-switch and when? Is this a metaphorical switching?

I viewed code switching from a couple of different perspectives; first, the technical mastery of the languages that the bloggers have. Most of the members of the collective are from Armenia. Two of them are from Canada. However, one of the local Armenian artists does not speak English. She always blogs with images and her comments are always in Armenian. The other local Armenian bloggers blog in both English and Armenian. Occasionally Diasporan Armenians living in Armenia or the Diaspora would blog or comment in Armenian and English, but seem to be more comfortable when blogging in English.

Second, I looked at the kinds of posts and the language utilized. The posts on local activist projects on women’s rights or LGBT issues are usually in both Armenian and English (with comments mostly in Armenian, a few in English). This signals the rooted locality as well as routing alignment to a larger scale translocal community.

The posts on the success and activities of Diasporan Armenian authors and artists would be in English. English, in a way, is the medium connecting them to the larger scale communities they imagine themselves as part of: Diasporan Armenian LGBT communities and through them the larger global LGBT community as one route among many.

If a blogger posts her own short stories or parts of her book, those posts are in Armenian. This indexes an identity of a local writer. One of the bloggers, who herself is a writer, translates parts of a Diasporan-Armenian writer’s award winning book into Armenian and posts them. In so doing, the blogger simultaneously projects an identity of a writer, translator, and LGBT activist.

The issue of translation as a hegemonic disciplining tool has had frequent coverage on the blog. The posts on translation and ideology of 2008-2009 were in Armenian, now they are in both Armenian and English. Through these posts the blogger analyzes the danger of the presence of the hegemonic citizen disciplining systems through the translated piece of work, thus articulating her identity of a professional, reflexive translator, an activist contemplating the mechanisms of suppression employed by disciplining institutions in an attempt to make sense of the hegemonic structures within which inequalities take place (Risman 2004). The bloggers’ attempts at subverting translation seem to be coming to fruition through their next activist project of “Queering Translation” scheduled for August of 2010, about which they blog in both Armenian and English, invoking scales larger than local for this enterprise.

To historicize the queer women’s presence in the Armenian reality, the bloggers post poems by a female Armenian poet of early 20th century (that they have located as a result of their archival research) and reinterpret it, identifying themes of lesbian love. Through their archival work of bringing out this poet, the WOW members attempt not only to claim discursive space synchronically but also diachronically.

These posts seem to invoke both local and global scales at the same time trying to keep the collective rooted in the local and connecting it to the global community of queer artists. The opportunity to publish the collective’s two year correspondence exploring “queer identity, language, and culture” (Queering Yerevan, accessed on March 28, 2010) in Armenian and English that has become possible in the large part due to the on-line fundraising efforts of a New York based LGBT Armenian organization is yet another instance of the collective’s successful transnational networks at work.

Throughout their blog, the bloggers often provide a metacommentary on their fragmented identities and the impossibility of having one stable, static identity, thus acknowledging its fluidity, malleability, instability, and undefinability. In their thoughts on identity the bloggers refer to Butler, Beauvoir, Bakhtin, Derrida, and more recently Ingraham. Through involving these scholars, the WOW members transcend their own locality and the actual lived difficulties and engage with a community of scholars in a discursive site that allows them to make sense of the daily as well as attempts to educate those uninformed.

The one post that I would like to dwell on as a site where this collective applies its strategies, is their open letter against intolerance to the ombudsperson of Armenia, posted in both Armenian and English. I argue that the WOW collective, is the base, in de Certeau’s (1984) terms, that makes its members strong. It is the castle, albeit, according to one of the members, based on “dis-identification” and “dissensus” that they can go back to, to regroup and rethink the move that will follow. In their crafting of the open letter to the ombudsperson of Armenia the WOW collective members frame their rights as part of global human rights identified in the UN declaration against discrimination based on sexual orientation that Armenia signed in December of 2008. The WOW collective expresses their key concern about the “resurgence of hostile rhetoric against homosexuals both in official and oppositional media” and supports their claim by pointing out the lack of professionalism and research on the part of the journalists who author those pieces.

The WOW members problematize the societal perception of ascribing maleness to homosexuality, on the one hand, and senior public officials’ view of homosexuality as a threat to national security (or a pathology), on the other. By doing this, they claim a place and presence in the gender identity discourse of Armenia. They point to specific media outlets that publish unresearched homophobic articles misrepresenting and misconstruing homosexuality. The WOW-ers frame the above homophobic views as reinforcing patriarchy in the Armenian society and promoting the dissemination of hatred through inaccurate information.

They challenge the authority of the local public figures when framing the comments of the latter as uninformed. They frame their own response as supported by civic groups and individuals concerned with human rights, urging public officials and individuals to become familiar with the issues Armenian homosexual men and women face.

Thus, in this letter WOW frames the cultural conservatives as homophobic, uninformed, and insular (assigning them a smaller scale) and reminds them of the obligations Armenia as a nation state has undertaken by signing the aforementioned UN declaration (assigning to this a global scale that they see themselves as part of). As I mentioned at the beginning of the paper, the collective condemns any act of human rights violations (in all its manifestations, physical as well as structural) not only locally, but also regionally. At the end of 2009, the collective posted an entry on their solidarity with an LGBT organization in Georgia the members of which had experienced political violence at the hands of the Georgian police.


The WOW collective’s political agenda, then, is put forth through aesthetic projects. The latter allow more room for the performativity of various identities rather than only queer identity. The WOW members situate themselves within the global by the force of the imagination of belongings: belonging to a global community of women (sharing a history of various oppressions); belonging to a global community of women artists and aesthetes; belonging to the global community of queer women. Yet at the same time, as Tsing (2000) points out, by pulling the various global belongings together through locally rooted projects, the WOW collective signals different identities at different times. The WOWers act as democratic agents, whether they perform their identities as women’s rights’ advocates, or queer women’s rights’ advocates, or children’s rights’ advocates when protesting against child abuse, or LGBT people’s rights’ advocates. Through their activist efforts the WOW-ers attempt to curve the existing discursive space of homosexuality, gendered male, by carving a space for queer women.

They seek media participation in the raising of the public’s awareness of the various oppressions that women, in general, and queer women, in particular, face in the Armenian society, partly in an attempt to address the gap between the queers depicted by the local Armenian mass media (weak, sick, promiscuous, dirty) and the identities of intelligent, creative, talented, and strong women they project through the discourse they develop within the walls of their blog that is nourished by experiences elsewhere (the US, Canada, Egypt, the Netherlands, Armenia), evoking their global connectedness through their local projects (Tsing 2000).

Thus, the WOWers are attempting to queer the mainstream society, albeit cautious not to become an instrument for the hegemonic system they are attempting to challenge and disidentify themselves from, in an attempt not to reinforce the normalcy of the patriarchal hegemony.

The historicity of the lack of place in public discourse that the collective is trying to claim, tainted with the homophobic coverage of the Armenian media and the blessing of the Armenian Apostolic Church makes it difficult to come across. There is a significant scalar incongruity between the hegemonic cultural conservative media agenda, and women’s and LGBT human rights’ agendas of the WOW collective, in that the former is predominantly in Armenian aimed at the local Armenian audience and local scale, and the latter is dialogic and evoking larger scale, and often jumping the local Armenian scale. The WOWers attempt to understand where and how the inequalities they experience as queers, as women, as queer Armenian women, take place, to better deconstruct and fight them (Risman 2004).

So then, do the transnational networks that the WOWers nurture and develop (and that sustain them) make them cosmopolitan, or their blog a cosmopolitan multi-author artistic, and often literary production bordering creative non-fiction? I suppose the answer would stem from your perspective on and definition of cosmopolitanism. To account for the potentially cosmopolitan engagements of counter-hegemonic subjects, Pollock et al’s suggestion of cosmopolitanisms giving way to the plurality of modes and histories, much like the diverse discourses and differentiations in feminisms (in the plural) that are “not necessarily shared in degree or in concept regionally, nationally, or internationally” (Pollock et. al 2000: 584) is instructive, so is one of the aspects of Mignolo’s de-colonial cosmopolitanism that acknowledges multiple trajectories and aims at a “trans-modern world based on pluriversality rather than universality” (Strand 2009:106). This cosmofeminism, then, would, perhaps, allow for a space, where various pluriversalities would enter “into a broader debate based on a recognition of their own situatedeness” (Pollock et. al 2000: 584-585).

Works Cited

Appadurai, Arjun
1996 Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Butler, Judith
1991 Imitation and Gender Insubordination. In Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings. Charles Lemert ed. Pp 637-648. Wesleyan University: Westview Press.
Carroll, A., and Sheila Quinn
2009 Forced Out: LGBT People in Armenia. Report on ILGA-Europe/COC fact-finding mission.
De Certeau, Michel
1984 The Practice of Everyday Life. University of California.
Pollock, S, Homi K. Bhabha, Carol A. Breckenridge, and Dipesh Chakrabarty
2000 Cosmopolitanisms. In Public Culture 12 (3): 577-589.
Ridgeway, Cecilia L., Shelley J. Correll
2004 Unpacking the Gender System: A Theoretical Perspective on Gender Beliefs and Social Relations. In Gender and Society 18(4): 510-531.
Risman, Barbara J.
2004 Gender as a Social Structure: Theory Wrestling with Activism. In Gender and Society 18(4): 429-450.
Strand, Torill
2010 Cosmopolitanism in the Making. In Studies in Philosophy and Education 29:103–109.
Tsing, Anna
2000 The Global Situation. In Cultural Anthropology 15(3): 327-360.

No comments:

Post a Comment