Student Desk Doodles in the Context of Cultural Globalization

Photo: Arevik Harutyunyan
Photo: Arevik Harutyunyan

The following analysis represents the influences of cultural globalization manifestations in Armenia demonstrated by the examples of the student desk doodles and desk-graffiti at Yerevan State University, the faculty of History. The “separation of 5 factors that help to create a global culture” suggested by American sociologist P. Berger is chosen as a theoretical basis. Desk graffiti are presented and interpreted as local, localized and global cultural phenomena from the perspective of anthropology. 

Since Armenia gained its independence, a new phase has started in our reality: on the one hand, Armenian culture of pre-Soviet period has re-evaluated, different phenomena of the Western culture have penetrated into Armenian reality with great intensity after the fall of the “Iron curtain”, on the other hand, Soviet-era culture has still, goes on reproducing. If the changes happen out of the context, they start to generate an environment of uncertainty, in which the unifying role of the society, including the value system of those forming a religious communality among separate segments of the ethnic community, is distorted.

One thing is when in a certain country only internal changes take place (political, economic, cultural), another thing is when internal changes are under the influence of foreign impacts with great intensity. We will contingently call the foreign impacts displayed in Armenia as “the cultural impact of globalization”. American sociologist Peter Berger’s factorial typology serves as a theoretical basis for the measurement of the globalization impact, according to which the following factors serve as a basis to the cultural globalization:

  • Language,
  • Business elite,
  • The club of intellectuals,
  • Social movements,
  • Mass culture.

The number of people, who use English as a language of work, increases more and more from year to year. One of the main reasons is the fact that English proficiency is seen as a necessary background for building a successful career. Here one must take into consideration the fact that a new language brings a new way of thinking along with it. As P. Berger points, the knowledge of any foreign language leaves an indirect emotional impact. Phrases, consequently as well as ideas, like “You have the right to your own opinion”, “Sexual orientation”, etc. can be spread.

When speaking about the business elite, we must mention that economy is the main driving force of the globalization. The members of the business elite carry Davos culture. The moving force of Davos culture is the global business, which controls the economic and technological globalization.

When speaking about the club of intellectuals, P. Berger takes into consideration those who form the main value system of the era. It happens via the Internet, numerous charity funds, social and scientific structures. These intellectuals can be involved in educational, scientific and social activities in different countries, as well as in a “place” where there are no cultural boundaries – the Internet. But the members of that very club of intellectuals may be against globalization.

  1. Berger links social events with the club of intellectuals, pointing that social events take place on the basis of their ideology like environmental movements.
  2. Berger finds the widespread type of the modern mass culture to be “American”, which is spread manly via the media. He also notices that local mass culture versions are created under the influence of the American mass culture, the content of which is, not the same in any case.

The following conditions have been taken into account when choosing the auditorium graffiti student desk graffiti as the subject of the survey:

  • Symbolic (semiotic) expressions of the driving forces of the cultural globalization are expressed quite completely and multilaterally in the auditorium graffiti.
  • The Youth (in this case-the students) is the age group which is the quickest to react and adopt everything new.
  • The knowledge provided to the students of the Faculty of History is of the identities of various models like historical, political, ethnic, global and local, esthetic, vocational, etc., the relativity and transformation of which can be seen in the auditorium graffiti.
  • The tendency of transformation from nationalism to global citizenship, or, identically, from ethnocentrism to ethnorelativism is especially seen in the selection of identity model mentioned above.

During the survey other issues preventing from getting more complete and objective image, have also been taken into consideration. For instance, we have taken into account the fact that not all the students leave their marking imprints on the tables and we cannot have a general idea about all the students through the desk-scribbles. Besides, the exact authors of the writings are mostly unknown to us, consequently the goals, motives, as well as receivers of the written message of the writings are not clear. With some reservation, the fact of the phenomenon being examined as a marginal practice has also been taken into consideration. By taking into account this circumstance and similar circumstances we tried to rely mainly on the symbolic and semantic sense of the writings when doing our analysis.

By taking into consideration the expressive and conceptual peculiarities of the material collected during the survey, we classified the auditorium-graffiti into the following groups:

  • Symbolic and graphic messages
  • Ideas (fascism, peace, eternity, etc.) pic. 1
  • Logos of organizations and companies (sports clubs, companies manufacturing cars, etc.) pic. 2
  • Symbols of an ethnic identity (Mount Ararat) pic. 3
  • Non-decoded images
  • Verbal messages
  • Personal names, pic. 4
  • Names of locations, pic. 5,6,7
  • Names of musicians or bands, pic. 8,9
  • Poetic excerpts, pic. 10
  • Famous companies (brands, names of taxi services, etc.) pic. 11,12
  • Sports clubs, sportsmen, pic. 13
  • Other

One of the eye-catching patterns in the examined writings is the usage of foreign language symbols. The majority of authors have used Latin alphabet. Even the words, which refer to the symbols of the Armenian ethnic identity, are of Latin letters, like the writings in the 3rd picture. But why is it so? Since Armenia gained its independence, when several elements of the Western culture have been penetrating into Armenia intensively and without any obstacles, this kind of culture has seemed to become a free platform for making the kind of wishes that were either not implemented until then or even not realized, to those who had only seen what was acceptable in the Soviet system till the independence. And the fact that the majority of the writings on the tables are written with the use of Latin Alphabet is not a coincidence: it is easier for the post-Soviet generation to learn the synchronous culture or the ways of expressing one’s identity instead of going back in 70 years and reformulating the pre-Soviet identity in order to formulate an identity different from the Soviet one. It seems that “Latin alphabet is the ideological weapon of the West” with the help of which the Western values are also being indirectly spread. The extracts from the Western culture i. e. the table graphics can be explained in the same way. As for Russian, after being a priority for 70 years nowadays we can only see some occasional fragments on the student desks and the interesting thing is that these basically represent the criminal subculture. It turns out that what (Russian) used to be considered as “the language of the elite” during the years of the Soviet Union, today has somehow become a part of the marginal culture i.e. “the official language of the slang of criminals”- a combination of Russian words and Armenian grammar: that is how it is expressed on the student desks (pic. 140).

The existence of verbal messages in foreign languages, besides being pro-Western and pro-Russian, can also be explained by the fact that these languages are the main languages of the net communication. The above-mentioned linguistic phenomena are clearly explained by the students’ desire to master foreign languages (especially English), more specifically, in this case we deal with an ideal or super identity. But in reality the students’ desires are left on the level of wishes as the proficiency of English mostly stays within the framework of extremely limited vocabulary relating to the mass culture. Besides, we often encounter grammatical mistakes. In this particular faculty educational process occurs primarily in Armenian, but in order to be involved in the global science they have to read English or Russian literature and then render it into Armenian. As a result we face a paradoxical phenomenon: the students mostly prefer to read literature in Russian or the translation from other languages into Russian but they mostly write in English on the desks. The contradiction of the students’ real and (in their perception) ideal identities are expressed in the best way here. We also see writings in Spanish on the desks that, besides the language, also include another moving force of cultural globalization which is the mass culture.  These writings are mostly connected with sport especially with football (pic. 15). Besides Spanish football clubs and football players, we also notice lots of names of German or British football clubs or football players. Apart from these countries being football leaders, their popularity in Armenia is connected with the broadcasting on local TV stations, which mostly broadcast the football matches of exactly these countries. We can also view music as a part of the global mass culture. From the musical styles, names of Western as well as Armenian Rock and Rap bands and performers can be seen on the desks (pic. 16-19). But we have to note that the names of Armenian performers doodled on the desks indicate the fact that that very culture is not national but nationalized instead, because the above-mentioned styles are again the result of the Western culture. As a result of the globalizing mass culture several slogans are being widely spread, for instance on one of the desks we see an expression from one of the American animated films “wish it, dream it, do it” (pic. 28) which can be viewed not only as a slogan of that film but also as a slogan of the Western culture which does not exclude anything, which, in my opinion, makes the Western culture even more attractive for non-Western nations.

Social movements are another factor of cultural globalization that are expressed on the desks. If we consider Parties as such, then we should note that there are basically 2 names of the Parties on the desks which in comparison with the rest of the Parties of the Republic of Armenia have been created earlier and are more radical, one of them functions with emphasized nationalism (Armenian Revolutionary Federation, Pan-Armenian National Movement) (pic. 20-210). It is interesting that there are no marks on the desks of the ruling Republican Party which has the highest number of members.

If we consider religion as a social movement (as it was done in Berger’s co-authored book) then the desk writings do not exclude them as well. Christianity is mostly expressed in different ways. It seems that Christianity is also one of the inseparable parts of the Armenian identity and it is difficult to change it under the influence of global culture. But the picture is quite different. The number of religious organizations entering Armenia under social, economic and political considerations since 1988 has been increasing. This phenomenon goes on even today with great intensity. We almost do not meet any message written in Armenian or typical to the Armenian Apostolic Church while there are lots of expressions written in English or with the help of Latin Alphabet (pic. 22). Besides English expressions, we also see varieties of the word “Jesus” written with the Latin letters (pic. 23). Here it is difficult to come to the right conclusion whether these expressions (especially English) are written by the student-members of global religious movements or these are the new ways of expressing the identity of the followers of the Armenian Apostolic Church under the global influence. The first option is more likely, because such approaches are typical to the members of religious organizations “invaded” from abroad, judging from the resemblance of their posted material on the net.

Among the desk writings other global movements are also presented. For instance the swastika is pictured on the desks many times (we firmly the swastika with Nazism, because other symbolic meanings of it are not mostly cognizable within a wide range of students) and Hitler’s name is written (pic. 23). On one hand, Hitler and the swastika are associated with nationalism, one the other hand, students of Armenian decent express their nationalism in a “non-Armenian” global way. The next movement can be called “the distant eco of “hippie-ism” ” (distant in the sense of time and space) which is expressed both by the names of bands or individual singers and parts of the songs (pic. 25-26).

The culture of the business elite is not expressed on the desks because here we deal with students and especially with the students studying historical and cultural sciences. We can talk about transnational economy instead, which is expressed on the desks through the names or symbols of engineering companies or companies producing electronic equipment from all over the world (pic. 12). Sometimes one can see the names of world famous brands (pic. 13). In both cases we deal with global phenomena in which the global identity, the fact of being a part of the world, is expressed. It is not excluded that these simply reflect the fact of being or wanting to be economically the elite.

The desk doodles serve the formation of social – psychological identity to the authors in a non-institutional way. Besides the fact that the students have written messages on the phenomena which are a part of the global culture, other students sitting on the same desk are under some influence of that very message and sometimes they write massages according to the context of a desk writing (of course, there are some exceptions) (pic. 29), while sometimes they act as “passive students”. In other words, symbolic interaction occurs. According to the formulation of a German sociologist Friedrich Tenbruck, we deal with the macrosystem of the representative culture, in which cultural experts (the students making desk writings) actively share different ideas, thoughts, beliefs and understandings which are passively accepted by other students. Desk writings can create a favorable field for the formation and implementation of power (we use the term “power” in the sense given by H. Arendt and M. Foucault: In general, power is the act of building another person’s thoughts or actions). That is, in this case the desk writings are considered to be new knowledge, which may in the future have some influence on those students sitting on these very desks, create a new idea or push to a new action.

On researching desk writings and images of YSU Faculty of History in the context of cultural globalization, we notice that there is nearly no reflection of the traditional Armenian identity in its form and content. But we also do not exclude the fact that more conservative students simply do not write on the desks. Nevertheless the students who write and their identities are included within the framework of the research. In the conditions of the society formation and globalization new symbolic systems as well as new identities are being formed, where on the one hand they try to get to know or learn everything, decoding and the decomposition of ethnic identity emerges, on the other hand opposite reactions take place very often. But in our case, as we have already seen, the opposite reactions are also expressed through the global (Western) means. By taking into consideration all these we can conclude that Armenian culture is also attached to the indivertible stream of cultural globalization.



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Author: Arevik Harutyunyan: © All rights are reserved

Translated by Tatevik Tumanyan