Post-National Social Formations on Russian Web Sites

Filipp Sapienza, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

The purpose of this paper is to describe the rhetorical conventions of community formation on Russian community web pages. The methodological point of departure for my analysis will be a form of rhetorical criticism rooted in the Aristotelian notion of "ethos." As one of three "proofs" of Aristotle's rhetoric, ethos refers to the character or credibility of a speaker as defined through the choices made in his or her speech. However, while the term has acquired a speaker-centered meaning, the origin of the word in the ancient Greek lexicon has the metaphors of "community" and "place" at its heart.

Russian community webs both enact and challenge this ancient view of ethos. Web sites are communal "rhetorical gathering places," virtual locations in which users enter and share in a specific set of communal values. Participants employ rhetorical conventions that consciously attempt to fix and stabilize a distinct Russian communal ethos on the World Wide Web. These conventions include hypertextual linkages to other Russian web pages, personal poetry, graphical design elements, facts about Russian society, and interactive features such as bulletin boards and chat rooms through which visitors can connect with one another.

However, the global and fluid nature of cyberspace limits the applicability of "ethos" to the Russian web. Where Ancient Greek "ethos" consisted of a homogenous, geographically-bound and aristocratic populace tied to the "polis," Russian web communities are comprised of diverse transnational participants, many of whom are deterritorialized from official political institutions within the nation-state of Russia itself. For this reason, Russian communal identification on the web is not the product of a homogenous or monologic discourse, but rather, is shaped by heterogeneous dialogic activity among Russians in Russia proper, Russian emigres abroad, and those of non-Russian ethnicity.

These factors lead to a new kind of ethos, one that theorist Arjun Appadurai calls an "ethnoscape". Ethnoscapes are "post-national social formations" comprised of diverse people who are concurrently situated in more than one place. Ethnoscapes nurture a collective consciousness independent of the constraints of a specific geographic domain. At the same time, however, each person in an ethnoscape consciously integrates his or her geographic setting into the discourse of identity formation. Thus, ethnoscapes do not derive an ambivalent collective identity so much as an ambiguous one. Ethnoscapic identity is the product of a plurality of consciousnesses, and thus, to some extent, creates the "transcultural" sociation articulated by Russian culturological theorists Mixail Baxtin and Mixail Epstein. The globalized mix and clash of diverse voices on Russian community webs offers a new ethos-ethnoscapic-transcultural form of community that transcends the boundaries of the nation-state of Russia itself. At the same time, and somewhat ironically, these virtual communities have the potential to transform political and national sentiments within that very same state as it tries to articulate for itself a post-Soviet identity.