Peasants at Table
"Peasants at Table" from the Prokudin-Gorskii Collection (ca. 1875)

Editor’s Note: This pieces is a modified repost from Peasant Muse.

Author’s Note: In the original post I used the term ‘analog dualism’, which has been replaced in the version below with ‘textual dualism’.  The sentiment and argument remain the same, as the shift from ‘analog’ to ‘textual’ more precisely describes the phenomena I am trying to uncover.

It is often the case with new technology that the promise of change it brings often outstrips its capacity to actually enact that change.  This is certainly true with several digital constructs that emerged over the past decade, like Wikipedia or the Open-Source movement, that are increasingly becoming obsessed with the promise and potential ‘social’ can bring to the issue of user equality.  Free from the constraints once imposed by more traditional analog methods, digital means of knowledge production and creation offer the promise of true independence and interdependence- yet often these new methods fall prey to (con)structural weaknesses that do little more than perpetuate the previous modes of inequality found in their analog ancestors, albeit in digital terms and conceptions that mask the true nature of their operation in the combined realms of both online and offline activity.

The argument presented above largely comes from a very cogent essay written by Nathan Jurgenson on the blog, Cyborgology.  Titled ‘Digital Dualism and the Fallacy of Web Objectivity‘, Jurgenson argues for abandonment of what he terms a ‘digital dualist’ perspective in favor a conception he calls ‘augmented reality’, defined in the quoted sections below:

…recognizing that code has always been embedded in social structures allows persistent inequalities enacted in the name of computational objectivity to be identified (e.g., the hidden hierarchies of Wikipedia, the hidden profit-motive behind open-source, the hidden gendered standpoint of computer code, and so on). I will argue that the fallacy of web objectivity is driven fundamentally by digital dualism providing further evidence that this dualism is at once conceptually false, and, most importantly, morally problematic. Simply, this specific form of digital dualism perpetuates structural inequalities by masking their very existence.

…Perhaps the central theoretical insight that characterizes my work thus far is the concept of augmented reality…simply, this perspective rejects the digital dualist position that the digital and physical are separate spheres and instead promotes the idea that atoms and bits enmesh to create our augmented reality. (Emphasis in the original)

Jurgenson expands on the implications of digital dualist thinking by stating that many digital projects, conceived in this mindset, are imbedded with the notion that they are capable of creating a sphere of activity that is separate and, perhaps, better than similar spaces found in the offline world.  The utopianism inherent in this perspective, however, “betrayed the ultimate reality that none of this digitality really existed outside of long-standing social constructions, institutions and inequalities.”

Jurgenson, in my opinion, is absolutely correct- but his insights don’t stop there. Take this quote, found later in the piece:

We could list many, many more examples about how supposedly-objective systems are instead embedded in the messiness of offline social structures and inequalities.

…what this analysis suggests is a traceable path from a conceptual fallacy that predates the Internet and became realized online with the dangerous result of disappearing the visibility of certain forms of social inequalities.

While I agree with most of what Jurgenson states above, I would posit that the ‘dangerous result’ inherent in digital dualism did not come about solely with the advent of the Internet- it has existed and been realized for quite some time in another construct many would consider mundane; the written word.  In this post, I would like to expand on the thoughts articulated above and demonstrate how Russian peasants, upon encountering the construct of Imperial ‘written space’, sought to pursue the concept of ‘augmented reality’ by challenging the ‘utopian’ ideal assumed inherent in the use of the written word.

Beginning with a short analysis of how written space came to embrace this mantle of ‘utopian’ ambition and creation of a ‘separate’ equality driven space through the introduction of Liberalistic ideals, notably marked by the reconfiguration of the state/society relationship found in the shift of subject to citizen, I then want to analyze two distinct examples of how Russian peasants challenged the idea of the written word.  The first focuses on reaction to the 1848 Inventory Reform in the Right-Bank Ukrainian provinces before shifting to the second, a look at peasant appeals of Volost court rulings as discussed in Gareth Popkins insightful article ‘Code vs. Custom’.  My goal is to provide empirical evidence in support Jurgenson’s claim, above, that digital dualism originates in a conceptual fallacy that predates the Internet, by analyzing how the written word, in part, helped shape this fallacy in forming the analog dualist ideal.

Up front, I should state that while the examples discussed below bring empirical perspective of the processes described by Jurgenson in his conception of ‘digital dualism’, the two situations have characteristics unique to their temporal locations.  This is not a ‘one-to-one’ correlative exercise- it should be viewed, instead, as an attempt to bring historical context to the issues raised by Jurgenson in his essay.

The Story of the Recorded Word: The Medieval Scribe

Liberalism and the ‘Equality’ of the Written Word

The question of liberalism…has been one of the constant dimensions of that recent European phenomenon which seems to have emerged first of all in England, namely: ‘political life.’ -Michel Foucault, Birth of Biopolitics

Michel Foucault delivered a series of lectures during the 1978-79 term at the College de France devoted to furthering study on the art of government by way of examining the question ‘liberalism’ asks of governing practice; that being, what is the self-limitation of governmental reason?  The idea that government could possess limits on its power was a radical shift from the stance taken by Western pre-modern societies that based their rule more upon coercion rather than regulation.  (This is a gross simplification, but for the sake of brevity I will indulge in such means)  The ideals of Liberalism promised to bring a greater capacity to unleash the latent forces of a nation’s citizenry (not subjects- a crucial differentiation that helped give liberalistic norms the air of greater equality) by using a system of discipline through regulation, rather than submission through coercion.  This shift from seeing population as a group of citizens, rather than subjects, possessed profound consequences.  The ‘equality’ implied in being a citizen meant that the state itself operated within disciplinary bounds, best expressed in what the West called ‘rule of law’.  Only by putting all citizens, including the rulers of the state, on equal terms in a juridical conception could the once oppressive forms of control, associated with feudal or medieval systems of rule, be transformed into a limited, reasonable exercise of power capable of spurring growth and the development of knowledge/professions then associated with the increasingly growing power of states like England.

Of course, not all states were interested in engaging in the self-limitation of power liberalism demanded.  Absolutist regimes, embodied by the rule of Hapsburg and Romanov dynasties, instead sought to embrace aspects of liberalism that could help them develop while still maintaing hold on the reigns of power the ‘rule of law’ was supposed to self-limit.  This created a contradiction among the subjects ruled in both empires- while the new laws were meant to inspire a sense of greater equality among the varied classes, the written words located in books or edicts did little but provide a thin veneer to justify the gross inequalities still in existence.  As I discussed in my post on high/low mobility constructs, the asynchronicity created by what the laws espoused and the lived reality on the ground created potential for backlash that manifested itself in use of rumors, ‘everyday resistance’ and even outright revolt by those who saw themselves as positioned in decidedly unequal positions with regards to the lawmakers.

Peasant/Serf behavior towards, and use of, the written word and the supposedly ‘equal’ space it created in modern Imperial Russia provides a perfect vehicle through which to explore the issue of ‘textual dualism’, and allows one to see empirical link between issues raised by Jurgenson above and the past examined below.

Execution of Afrāsiyāb (1341 CE)

Inventory Reform of 1848: The First Example

But what exactly is this state of war? Even the weak man knows- or at least thinks- that he is not far from being as strong as his neighbor. And so he does not abandon all thought of war. But the stronger man- or at least the man who is a little stronger than the others- knows, despite it all, that he may be weaker than the other, especially if the other uses wiles, surprise, or an alliance. –Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended

“То-то, толкуешь, а мы закон знаем.”  “That is what you discuss, but we know the law.” Parish Clergyman to Soldiers sent to enforce the Inventory Reform in the Volhynia Province

Over the course of the first-half of the nineteenth century, as Imperial Russia watched its relative power decline in the face of a growing industrial England and Western Europe in general, several intellectuals and bureaucrats alike began to realize the necessity of bringing reform to a institution that served as the backbone of economic production for the state in the past two centuries- serfdom.  Before granting emancipation in 1861, there were several limited attempts at reform made in smaller sections of the empire.  The Inventory Reform of 1848, carried out in the Right Bank Ukrainian provinces of Kiev, Podolia and Volhynia, sought to reign in the landowning nobles power over their serf populations.  Inventories were documents that stipulated the amount of land serf families were given to farm and also set the terms for the amount of dues they paid to their landowner or the total number of labor days (known as corvee labor) a landowner could demand from their serfs each week.  It was a limited, yet ambitious, plan to use top-down reform methods in an effort to improve the living conditions of serfs lives while also keeping the mainly Polish landowners in check.

Due to the sensitive nature of bringing this kind of reform to serf populations, measures were taken to ensure limited ‘misunderstanding’ of the comprehensive laws to be enacted.  Promulgated between November 1847 and March 1848, the Inventory Laws were to be delivered by the Marshall of the Nobility and district police officials to each individual estate.  Upon arriving, serfs gathered for a special service in the village church where the Marshall would read aloud the regulations to all assembled, taking special care to note how the new laws were conceived of as a special favor from the tsar.  The local village priest was tasked with providing answers ‘without any kind of interpretation’ to questions serfs possessed.  Almost immediately, serfs challenged the interpretation and implementation of the new laws.

Of central concern for serfs was filling out the written contracts or record books that established the new land boundaries and labor obligations.  While reactions were diverse, complaints generally fell into the following categories:

  1. The ‘books’ were written in hand, rather than printed.
  2. The ‘books’ used the crest of the landowner, rather than that of the tsar.
  3. The ‘books’ mandated a higher number of labor days than the inventory laws stipulated.
  4. The ‘books’ were not issued in other villages.
  5. Neighboring serf villages were not accepting the new ‘books’.
  6. Many expressed fears that if they signed the new ‘books’, they would remain serfs forever.

There were a few reasons why Serfs felt justified making these complaints.  First, the Inventory Reform sought to implement a standardized model that was based on a single estate located in the northern portion of the Right-Bank Ukrainian provinces.  Since every estate possessed varying levels of serf population and composition of land types, the use of a single model simply did not make sense for the majority of estates under the jurisdiction of the new laws.  Second, the rigid impracticality of the written code ran roughshod over the established notion of community, informed by local customs and traditions held by the often distinct villages, that serfs worked communally to uphold.  The reasons for refusing to sign the new Inventory ‘books’, provided above, reflect the sense of disconnect between the ‘one-size-fits-all’ model imposed and the reality of the estate in question.

In general, serfs resisted engaging solely with the written word because it represented a ‘space’ dictated not by the traditions and customs held by the local populace but, instead, the rules and regulations of the higher authorities; the laws did not embrace the ‘augmented reality’ serfs desired.  For the authorities, this seeming separation of space created by the written word was advantageous and allowed for greater levels of purported ‘equality’ to be applied to the whole of society.  Serfs, often illiterate and weary of ‘outside’ intrusion, understandably felt differently.  The conflict between traditional values and the norms expressed in the Inventory Laws is pithily summed up by the quote of the parish clergyman provided above.  While the authorities, represented by the soldiers, discussed what the new reform meant (advocating ‘textual dualism’), the local serf population, represented by the local clergyman, provided an alternative view based on their interpretation of the ‘true’ meaning of the law (advocating their version of ‘augmented reality’).

Because the laws were written in a particularly dense form of legalese, it proved easy for serfs to base complaints on circulating rumors and differing interpretations of the Inventory reforms.  (Another example of the interaction between high/low mobility constructs)  These tactics were not without merit- the level of unrest created by initial implementation of the laws caused authorities to rethink their initial proposals.  While this behavior did not keep the laws from being enacted, they did force change that often accepted, albeit to a limited degree, the desires and issues raised by serf populations.

(Much of the information from this section of my response comes from David Moon’s excellent article “The Inventory Reform in Right-Bank Ukraine in 1847-48“)

Charlemagne Window: Constantine's Letter (c.1225)

Peasant Appeals to Volost Court Decisions: The Second Example

…peasant petitions were considerably more sophisticated than earlier; no longer content with traditional appeals for justice or compassion, they offered more complex arguments to establish their legal and moral claims. –Gregory Freeze, From Supplication to Revolution

…villagers showed themselves to be skilled at exploiting the contingencies inherent in the customary law situation itself. -Gareth Popkins,Code versus Custom”

Emancipation of the serfs in 1861 meant a radical reshaping of a large section of Russian society.  No longer directly relying upon landowners to regulate and ensure the production of resources on peasant lands, in addition to maintaining law and order, the Imperial Russian government reluctantly endorsed another governing model inspired by the liberalistic quest to produce citizens instead of subjects- the volost court system.  A volost was a unit of land-area measurement, roughly equivalent to a county in the American system.  The volost court was another attempt to cede some measure of authority away from the absolutist government and more into the hands of locals- although, again, in very limited terms and always under the supervision of central authorities.  As Gareth Popkins states in his article, “Code versus Custom? Norms and Tactics in Peasant Volost Court Appeals, 1889-1917“, this attempt at self-rule reflected an understanding that local volost judges held a much clearer view of both unwritten local peasant customs, then still very much alive and influencing conceptions of legality and morality, in addition to written legal statues (despite the fact that many volost judges were illiterate).  Popkins focused his article on appeals to the higher court authorities concerning matters of inheritance and family property disputes, as these areas relied heavily upon local customs for implementation.

In the examples provided below, there is an increased sophistication of peasant use in both their local customs and the written legal codes.  While it can be argued that the Imperial Russian state accepted the use of local custom in legal proceedings in order to build up a legal tradition from the ground up (this is the position Popkins takes in his article), I would suggest that peasants were, instead, attempting to bring the separate written space of legal codes into alignment with their concept of ‘augmented reality’.  This is not to say that they always sought this incorporation, as sometimes peasants would insist on utilizing the written legal code if it worked to their benefit.  However, it should be noted that peasant attempts to justify the use and existence of local, unwritten customs into the larger juridical apparatus demonstrates that many felt the supposed equal and separate space created by legal codes did not always foster an equal treatment for the peasant class.  In a real sense, the cases described below point to an evolutionary understanding of how to blend the lived experience with the space created by the written word.

Although Popkins analyzes several examples of peasant appeals, I selected just two cases for this essay- one, the Egorova case, in which the written law code trumped the presence of traditional custom and another, the Shelokov case, where custom managed to push back the boundaries of codified laws.

Sevost’ianovye Brothers vs. Egorova-1910

The crux of this case centered on whether Egorova could receive a widow’s share of her dead husband’s property as stipulated under the written civil laws.  The husband’s sons, the Sevost’ianovye Brothers, appealed to higher authorities claiming the Volost court decision ignored local customs that made a distinction between young, childless widows and aged widows.  The higher courts rejected the appeal by the brothers on the grounds that no custom had been quoted by either party in the initial Volost court case and that the use of civil laws, in this case, was appropriate.

What makes this case interesting is that both Egorova and the Sevost’ianovye brothers were aware of the local customs in use- yet both parties clearly hoped that exclusive use of civil laws would prove beneficial to their cases.  When denied what they felt was a fair settlement, the brothers then turned to local custom as a means of overturning the established written space of civil laws.  While ultimately unsuccessful, this behavior demonstrates that, by the early 20th century, peasants were much more adept at negotiating both the world of local custom and the written space of codified laws- in effect creating an ‘augmented reality’ that could be selectively utilized depending on the situation at hand.  Even more interesting, while the state could have insisted on utilization of only written space, they clearly sought an accommodation between peasants and society through the acceptance of local custom in legal claims.  In a real sense, the Imperial state acknowledged the presence of the ‘augmented reality’ peasants clamored for, although one should keep in mind the ultimate authority resided in the central governing bodies- they may have tolerated such claims but could ultimately reject them.

The Shelokov Case-1915

There existed a tradition in peasant communities that couples without a son could take a young man into their household in a form of adoption termed primak. This relationship was not usually recorded in official registers, but among the local populace the designation of primak granted full rights as a male heir to an estate.  In this case, Evdokiia Zakharova accepted Alkesander Shelokov into her house as a primak and Shelokov married Zakharova’s daughter.  After Zakharova died, Shelokov appealed to the Volost court to seek his rights as an heir to Zakharova’s estate.  After the case moved to the higher courts, Shelokov was awarded a much smaller parcel of the estate than was traditionally given to male heirs- Shelokov appealed, claiming the district courts were not aware of his designation of primak and the local custom granting him full rights as a male heir.  The courts decided he should receive a greater portion of the estate amounting to a ‘widow’s share’.  Feeling slighted again, Shelokov appealed the new decision, this time sending in a list of improvements he made on the estate in order to demonstrate his willingness and ability to manage the full parcel of land.  This tactic proved far more successful, as the district board officially recognized his primak status and instructed the volost courts to review the case once more taking into account the local custom of inheritance associated with those designated as a primak.

Here we have a case that, at first, sought to place Shelokov directly under the rule of written space in a clear embracement of the ‘analog dualist’ perspective.  Only through vigorous appeal did Shelokov receive his traditional, unwritten rights as a designated primak.  Just like the Egorova case discussed above, the state recognized the presence of an ‘augmented reality’, albeit only after continued insistence by Shelokov that the ‘textual dualist’ conception did not apply and could not provide justice as established under traditional rights.

From Inventory Reform to Legal Custom- Evolution of ‘Augmented Reality’

In this very brief survey of complex peasant/serf interactions with the Russian Imperial state, I’ve tried to demonstrate the empirical roots of what Jurgenson calls the web objective fallacy of ‘digital dualism’ by showing that similar fallacious claims were made with the written word, in what I will term ‘textual dualism’, through use of supposedly objective ‘liberalistic’ claims to equality embodied in codified laws.  Clearly, due to the rather long history of the written word in modern societies, there are several more examples that could be examined in greater depth to provide even stronger empirical claims to points raised in Jurgenson’s essay.

What the examination of both Inventory Reform and the use of local customs in legal appeals points towards is an evolution of the applicability of ‘textual dualism’ to include, or at least acknowledge, the ‘augmented reality’ claims made by those groups who felt they were treated unequally by the imposition of written space on the lived experience.  This points to a hopeful future in which increased user sophistication of web platforms will lead to a greater acceptance and recognition of ‘augmented reality’ despite the prevalent use of ‘digital dualist’ conceptions.  The current debate over the use of oral citations on Wikipedia point towards developments of this trend.  However, the chipping away of ‘digital dualist’ practices will not occur on their own accord, and if participants in digital culture today take anything away from the peasant/serf experience surveyed above it is that continued pressure must be applied to bring the effects of ‘augmented reality’ into practice.

Jeremy Antley (@jsantley), who writes about history and culture on his blog Peasant Muse, is a PhD student currently studying the immigration of Russian Old Believers to Oregon in the 1960’s.