"Belief" - 2019 Presidential Plenary

Introduction by Mark Steinberg

One of the honors of being ASEEES president for one year is the chance to propose an annual conference theme and organize a “Presidential Plenary.” As a contribution to the theme, “Belief” (described at https://www.aseees.org/convention/2019-convention-theme), I organized a panel, “Illuminating the Darkness: Practices of Belief and Disbelief.”  

My idea was to go beyond “belief” asomething abstract and disembodied. Instead, I wanted a discussion that would consider belief as practiceSo, invited a quartet of some of my favorite scholars in our field who, I felt, might have something interesting to say about practices of belief, especially, I admit, radical practices. I was delighted and honored they all agreed. 

In my invitation, I posed this question (which was also at the heart of my presidential address): in the face of so much darkness in the lived reality of the world, past and present, and the evident odds against real change—especially change that could realize a life closer to what humans have long felt ought to be rather than what merely is—are there practices of belief that do this work?  

I had no idea what their answers might be. But I knew that these are scholars and thinkers always worth listening to. And they certainly were.  

Here are the bio-sketches I read in introducing them: 

Eliot Borenstein (Professor of Russian & Slavic Studies at New York University). He is the author of a series of award-winning books: Men without Women: Masculinity and Revolution in Russian Fiction, 1917-1919Overkill: Sex and Violence in Contemporary Russian Popular Cultureand Plots against Russia: Conspiracy and Fantasy after SocialismHis next book, Pussy Riot: Speaking Punk to Power, is to be published in 2020.  

Borenstein founded the Jordan Center’s All the Russias blog in 2012, and has been its primary contributor. He has also written a new series on the Jordan Center blog, called “Rereading Akunin,” and begun another series on the afterlives of Alan Moore’s and David Gibbons’ Watchmen. 

He is current writing a book entitled Russia’s Alien Nations: The Secret Identities of Postsocialism, whose first draft is being serialized at russiasalienations.org and on All the Russias, as well as The World Inside Your Head: Marvel Comics in the 1970s (to be serialized in draft form on the Cornell University Press website).  

Beyond Belief: Conspiracy, Dissent, and the Trouble with Sincerity by Eliot Borenstein, New York University

Laurie Essig is Professor of Gender, Sexuality & Feminist Studies at Middlebury College. She is a sociologist who teaches and writes about how power shapes our bodies and our desires. Her first book, Queer in Russia: A Story of Sex, Self and the Other considered how sexual others are imagined and thus imagine themselves in Russia. Her second book, American Plastic: Credit Cards, Boob Jobs and Our Quest for Perfection argued that cosmetic surgery in the US is the subprime mortgage crisis of the body, with corporations squeezing profit from working class Americans who hope a more perfect body will lead to a better future. Her most recent book, Love, Inc.: Dating Apps, the Big White Wedding, and Chasing the Happily Neverafter argues that romance as an ideology became even more powerful in the last few decades even as actual marriage rates declined. Romance, she says, promises us a safe and secure future precisely as our future is more and more precarious. Essig has also written for a variety of publications including The Washington PostThe New York TimesThe Conversation, and Ms. Magazine. 

Believing in Lesbian Utopias in Putin's Russia by Laurie Essig, Gender, Sexuality & Feminist Studies, Middlebury College

Joan Neuberger is Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author or co-editor of an eclectic range of publications, from Hooliganism: Crime and Culture in St Petersburg, 1900-1914 (1993), to the edited anthologies Picturing Russia: Explorations in Visual Culture (2008) and The Flying Carpet: Studies on Eisenstein in Honor of Naum Kleiman (2017). Her most recent book is This Thing of Darkness: Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible in Stalin’s Russia (2019).  

She has two projects in the works: a study of landscape and nature in Eisenstein’s writing and films, and a sequel to Picturing Russia, co-edited with Valerie Kivelson and Sergei Kozlov, called Picturing Russian Empire. For the past ten years she has been the Editor of Not Even Past, the award-winning public history website, and co-host of its podcast, 15 Minute History. 

Sergei Eisenstein: Ironic Belief by Joan Neuberger, University of Texas at Austin

Ronald Grigor Suny is Professor of History at the University of Michigan and Emeritus Professor of Political Science and History at the University of Chicago. He is author of a series of influential books: The Baku Commune; The Making of the Georgian Nation Looking Toward AraratThe Revenge of the PastThe Soviet Experiment; “They Can Live in the Desert But Nowhere Else”: A History of the Armenian Genocide; Red Flag Unfurled: History, Historians, and the Russian Revolution; and co-author with Valerie Kivelson of Russia’s Empires 

He has finished a biography of the young Stalin – Stalin: Passage to Revolution – for Princeton University Press and a series of historiographical essays on Stalinism and Soviet history – Red Flag Wounded: Historians, Stalinism, and the Soviet Experience – for Verso Books. He is currently working on a book on the recent upsurge of exclusivist nationalisms and authoritarian populisms: Forging the Nation: The Making and Faking of Nationalisms. 

Clearly all more-than-interesting people to listen to… and now to read! Enjoy. 

Stalin as True Believer, or: So, What is Socialism, Anyway?  by Ronald Grigor Suny, The University of Michigan