Almira Ousmanova

Senior Fellow from April 2008 - October 2009
In 1993, Almira Ousmanova received her Ph.D. in Philosophy for a work on the semiotic conception of culture in Umberto Eco. From 1993-1994, she was a lecturer at the Department of Philosophy at the Belarusian State University, Minsk. From 1994-2002, she was Associate Professor at the Department of Culturology at BSU (Chair of Aesthetics and Culturology); from 1995-1997 she was Associate Professor at the National Institute of Higher Education and Humanities (Chair of Philosophy and Culturology), Minsk. Her international fellowships and grants include a Fulbright Visiting Scholarship at the University of Madison – Wisconsin in 1996, a Jean Monnet Fellowship at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy in 1997/1998, and a Fellowship at the British Academy, Oxford, UK in 1999. From 1998-2004, she was Associate Professor at the Department of Culturology and the Department of Art Theory at the European Humanities University. After Belarusian authorites closed the University for political reasons, it reopened in Lithuanian exile in Vilnius in 2005. Ousmanova then became professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences. Since 2005, she is Director of the MA Program in Cultural Studies and Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at EHU, Vilnius.

Fields of research

Soviet Cinema; film theory; visual culture; cultural studies; gender studies; semiotics.

Research project at IKKM

The project is dedicated to the exploration of the relationship between visual imagery and »historical imaginary« of the Soviet culture. The research is focused on the Soviet cinema of the 1920-1960s from the standpoint of current debates on the Soviet culture and the modes of its conceptualization. The theoretical issues concerning the interpretation of visual images for the purposes of a sociological or historical research are to be given a special attention (in this sense Soviet cinema is to be taken also as a  ‘case’ study for the reflection on methodology of  the analysis of visual representations). »The Soviet« is being understood here both as an aesthetic category (that relates to the specific visual style and artistic conventions, which are recognizable as a »canon« of representation which is inherent to Soviet visual culture) as well as an anthropological concept (which refers to a certain way of life, culturally specific values, semiotic systems, rituals and various everyday practices of the Soviet period).

The first part of my book will be focused on the investigation of the methodological issues. Visual media have considerably changed our idea of history and brought into existence new cultural models of the mnemonic.  Images play an important part in the mechanisms of transmission (or repression) of collective memory, influencing how we think about the past and create the commonality and continuity of experience. However, visual text (be it film, advertising or photography) is not a mere reflection of social reality: its relationship with what can be called ‘reality” is much more complicated than we used to think (particularly, when we deal with the so called cinematic »realism«). It would be more accurate to say, that films express »particular versions of social imagination« (Norman Denzin), for they encapsulate »the sensitivity, aspirations and dreams of societies in particular historical and sociological situations«.

Visual representations actively participate in structuring lived experience and making it intelligible: what is not yet fully exposed or rationalized, can be, however, articulated and “transcribed” through cinematic narrative. In other words, cinema participates in a historical semiosis, capturing and visualizing that what might resist  to linguistic description. It depicts ideals, needs, unconscious desires, dreams, patriotic feelings, hidden xenophobia or social pessimism, which is then projected into the realms of the social; it allows us to access the historical imaginary of a given society, to get to know what it thinks of itself or, more precisely, how it imagines itself.

Thus, the main research questions that are to be addressed here:  how collective imaginary is related to the visual imagery, how our memories are shaped by the visual images of what we have never seen ourselves; to which extent visual texts are ‘reliable’ sources for a historical or sociological research; what competencies and conceptual tools are essential in the process of decoding historical and anthropological meanings of the visual representation. This kind of metatheoretical reflection is important not only in light of  the growing interest of social researchers to the visual texts, but also because the interdisciplinary character of ‘visual literacy’ often represents a problem for those scholars who tend to read visual texts through ‘objectivist’ lenses. The interpretation of a cinematic text, for instance, requires both knowledge of narrative and visual conventions, as well as an awareness of a larger historical and social context.  I believe that what is most valuable in film is the veiled content that is rendered between the lines of a narrated story, beyond the intentions of its author, thus providing a kind of unintentional evidence. Trying to surmount the temptation of a literal reading of a film, to break through the level of »textual realism«, in order to reach a »subversive« level of narration, we therefore seek to map the invisible, to reconstruct a background that resists conscious recognition, to decode the phantasms, anxieties and desires that are communicated to us in a given film. The methodological framework for this research issues is shaped by the works of some contemporary historians, sociologists,  film theorists, semioticians (such as M.Ferro,  M.Lagny, R.Rosenstone, H.White, N.Denzin,  P.Sorlin, T.Elsaesser and others).

The second part of my research will be focused on the analysis of Soviet ‘historical imaginary’, on the exploration of the dialectics of ‘visible and invisible’ in the everyday culture  vis-à-vis  ideological discourse(s), on the examination of the specific ‘topoi of vision’ inherent to the Soviet culture at different stages of its history, and the role of visual media in the formation of social and cultural identity of Soviet  men and women. Since visual representations oscillate between official and unofficial political and social spheres, they are concealing as much as ‘making visible’ various social problems and are capable to articulate those topics which may have been silenced in verbal texts. According to Michelle Lagny ,  cinema registers multiple social and cultural changes that can be understood only much later: it  ‘reflects’ in as much as it constructs mental habits, cultural stereotypes and society’s attitude toward certain taboo topics (such as sexuality, crime, drugs, etc.), as well as reacting sensitively in response to  political and ideological transformations.

Hence, Soviet cinema  can be regarded as a ‘visual archive’ of everyday Soviet culture  which preserves the imprints of those phenomena that were repressed or tabooed in the official ideological discourse  - such as prostitution, alcoholism, deficit and shortage, political cynicism, alienation, delinquency; class, ethnic and gender conflicts, etc. It would be interesting to discuss how Soviet cinema participated in the construction of the historical memory of Soviet soci ety, but also to  think of what  has retained from that ‘visual archive’ in today’s popular culture and continues to play an essential role in the constructing of cultural identity of Post-Soviet people. The problem of ‘blank spaces’, ruptures and lacunae in the memory of the Post-Soviet generation  has to do not only with the ideological twists and political transformations of the last 15 years, but  it traces back to the specificity of historical memory of Soviet people which itself has been several times reshaped and ‘formatted’. I find it very productive to focus on the most problematic periods (1920-1940-1960s) which are crucial for understanding the processes of constructing historical consciousness (and unconscious) in Soviet times, of the elaboration of new ideological discourses and new conventions of visual representation. In my opinion, the discontinuities and ruptures between these decades dismantle the coherent image of the Soviet culture as a whole (at least, in terms of ‘historical imaginary’).

It should be noted that a period of the 1920s has been extensively researched by both Russian and western scholars (due to the   historical significance of this newly formed cultural paradigm as well as to its extraordinary richness and innovative character in all fields of social and cultural life).  Similarly, the period of the ‘golden age’ of Stalinist culture (1930-s) has also received a detailed account on behalf of historians, literary and film scholars (particularly,  in the framework of the comparative analysis of totalitarian regimes in Europe of that time). However, visual culture of the 1940s (namely, before, during and after the Second World War)  and particularly of  the ‘Thaw’ period have been surprisingly ‘overleapt’, not so much in terms of  historical  and archival research, but in terms of the elaboration of the conceptual framework needed for the interpretation of visual texts which were produced in that time.  This rethinking has to do with the degradation of the ‘Stalinist’ canon, with ‘speaking through’ the traumatic memories of the Great Patriotic war (which started in the late 1940-s and continued till the end of the 1970s),  the decline of  the communist Utopia (whose gleams still nourished film culture of the 1960s), the formation of a completely different (and very peculiar) film aesthetics, with the  new modes of representation of everyday life and the new modes of narrating histories and History.  The cinema of the 1960s has a lot in common with the cinema of the 1920s: both managed to ‘document’ meticulously everyday life (‘byt’)  of Soviet people and the impact of modernization on various social levels; both were particularly sensitive towards the gender, ethnic and class issues; both were strongly affected  by the ideals of Revolution and promoted the utopian visions of  the radiant future; both succeeded to create new lifestyles and new aesthetics (not only on the screen, but far beyond).  I find it particularly symptomatic that the rethinking of the Soviet phenomenon and its origins in the cinema of  the 1960s had lead to the situation when the themes of the Revolution and Civil War were given as much attention as the late modernist topics of social disintegration and alienation which eventually resulted in the collapse of the Soviet society.