Fractal Kinship: Europe 2016

Political conflict can create deep turmoil within families. Marina lost her only son to fighting in eastern Ukraine. He died while fighting in a Ukrainian airborne division that was attempting to regain territory lost to separatists. The magnitude of this loss becomes more palpable if we consider Marina’s family as a whole: her mother had welcomed the separatists and supported them in their fight. Her sister was politically active and took a leadership position in one of the breakaway republics. So as Marina sees it, her mother and sister helped facilitate the death of her only son.

The EU referendum results have also thrown families into upheaval. The title of a recent article sums it up well “I can barely even look at my parents.” In the aftermath of Britain’s vote to leave the EU, a generation gap between the millennials and the older generation has widened. Young people report having heated arguments with their parents, being hung up on, and even being told to leave Great Britain if it is so wonderful in the EU. A primary issue is that the younger generation has been planning for a future that as a result of the vote to exit the EU, is out of reach. One man summed up his feelings toward his parents by saying “I feel betrayed.”

Photo of maternity ward in Donbas by Olexandr Danylov

Betrayal. It is a commonly used word within families affected by the war in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine as well. I am calling this phenomenon, that seems to be a part of conflict in many places and times, fractal kinship. A fractal is a natural phenomenon or a mathematical set that exhibits a repeating pattern that displays at every scale. Fractals are useful in modeling structures like coastlines and snowflakes, in which similar structures recur at progressively smaller scales.

There are other pertinent examples of fractal kinship in more distant history. Abraham Lincoln warned in 1858 that a “house divided against itself cannot stand.” This notion became part of the American political vocabulary. The American Civil War pitted brother against brother and father against son. As Taylor (2005) points out, the division of families in the Civil War shattered expectations and beliefs about the meaning of family at the time, prompting people to step back and think.

It is easy to see how the family as metaphor has helped imagine the nation, but how do national tensions get refracted back into families? Conventionally, the affective realm has been cast with human subjectivity and the inner world of human beings, often conceived in terms of their interiority. My interviewing in eastern Ukraine suggests that the distinction is artificial. In my current project, I am attempting to understand the relationship between an inside (the emotional world of a person) and an outside (a broader arena of violent politics). Veena Das and Arthur Kleinman explore how people experience drastic political events through the repertoires at their disposal, sometimes interiorizing violence (2000). The question becomes how subjectivities, or human interiorities – are produced in engagement with or subjection to violence.

I start to understand this better when I speak with Marina, still dressed in black mourning clothes. The fractal geometry connecting violence across layers appears to be language and communication. A recurring theme across my interviews, not just Marina’s, is the lack of emotional preparation to talk about this war. Some families stay together by agreeing not to talk about the political conflict. Others become estranged or break apart when the war enters family conversations. Similarly, it is difficult to talk about loss in a way that does not further wound. Emotional dexterity seems to be missing even among well-meaning people, who essentially blame Marina for her son’s death when they ask her “why did you let him go in the first place?”

Communication is also an enormous concern when people attempt to imagine a post-conflict Ukraine and realize the psychological abrasions and lacerations, many of them delivered within families like Marina’s, will be hardest to heal. Therapists and social workers I spoke with seek to change this. For example Father Andrei, who serves a Ukrainian Orthodox congregation outside the conflict zone, in what is known as the “Grey Zone” leads classes in non-violent communication. He believes that war in eastern Ukraine is not going to end, at least not in a real and lasting way, until people learn to speak to each without causing more emotional pain.

Photo of woman returning to her destroyed home by Olexandr Danylov

The manner in which subjectivity has been conceptualized, as referring to human interiority; and the way in which the exterior political world is considered as made up by political actors is too limited. Marina’s affect, the tears we both choke back, is not something that can be reduced to human interiority. Anthropological scholarship – and perhaps Europe – stand to gain if this space is opened up to understand how the two are connected.

This is no easy task. Marina is a psychologist with a rich vocabulary for articulating emotions, and yet the loss remains ineffable. So we speak around it, circling it until we get close enough that tears are streaming down both our faces. The lump in my throat hurts so badly that I can only tuck my chin and stare at my notebook page. The affect comes and goes, and passes between us in waves. The crest of each wave for Marina is the recognition that her son died not for his country, but for its people.

And this is precisely the reason that the interiorization of violence and the affect surrounding war must be better understood. If there is a fractal geometry to political and family conflict in which they replicate one another, it needs to be understood. Lincoln’s concept that a house divided against itself cannot stand is more than metaphor – it points to the heart of what the conflict in Ukraine is all about for the people caught in the middle.

Note: Many thanks to Olexandr Danylov,  a Kyiv-based photo-journalist for the generous use of his two photos in this post. Gratitude goes out to him also for the bravery required to capture these images.

Das, Veena and Arthur Kleinman (eds.). 2000. Violence and Subjectivity. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Taylor, Amy Murrell. Divided Family in Civil War America. Chappell Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Greta Uehling

Greta Uehling is Fulbright scholar currently based in Ukraine. She teaches in the Program on International and Comparative Studies and is an associate faculty member with the Center for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.