To Smile and Not to Smile

Mythic Gesture at the Russia-China Border

in Social Analysis
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Abstract

This article examines the role of smiling as a performative gesture at the northeast border between Russia and China. It argues that the border is a place where ‘myth’ in the sense proposed by Roland Barthes is manifest in the comportment of people when they see themselves as representing the civilization of one side or the other. In this situation, smiling and not smiling are elements of particular communicative registers that enact political myths in life. Highly gendered, these agentiveperformative gestures exist amid other functional and affective registers, which can override them. The article also discusses the ‘helpers’ who mediate in cross-border trade, whose image is also sometimes subject to mythic imagination.

Contributor Notes

Caroline Humphrey is a social anthropologist who has worked in the USSR/ Russia, Mongolia, Inner Mongolia, Nepal, and India. Her research interests include socialist and post-socialist society, moral economy, the relation between history and anthropology, and the aesthetics of daily life. Until 2010 she was Sigrid Rausing Professor of Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, and she is currently a Research Director at the university’s Mongolia and Inner Asia Studies Unit. Notable publications include The Unmaking of Soviet Life: Everyday Economies after Socialism (2002) and, with Hurelbaatar Ujeed, A Monastery in Time: The Making of Mongolian Buddhism (2013). E-mail: ch10001@hermes.cam.ac.uk

Social Analysis

The International Journal of Anthropology

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