The Shalin-Lipovetsky Exchange on Postsmodernist Literature
October 31 - November 12, 1997
PROFESSOR MARK LEIDERMAN
2421 EAST WASHINGTON S
BLOOMINGTON IL 61704
I read your conference paper a few weeks ago, and now I have finished your book and can share with you a few thoughts on your project. Let me tell you – it was the most stimulating reading. I learned a ton, took copious notes, and jotted down pages of barely legible comments which I am now trying to decipher. Your book, Postmodernism. Ocherki istoricheskoi poetiki (Ekatirenburg: Uralskii Gosudarstvennyi Pedagogicheskii Universitet, 1997) and Mikhail Epstein's collection of essays, After the Future: Paradoxes of Postmodernism & Contemporary Russian Culture (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1995) are the two most important book-length studies of Russian postmodernism that came to my attention in recent years. No one grappling with this subject can afford to miss these two volumes. I hope your study will be translated into English before long.
Even where you cover familiar grounds, you manage to bring out unfamiliar things I have, or would have, missed had I traversed the same territory unaided by your map. Your inquiry underscores the value of inspired exegesis, which does more than make "another's speech" accessible to new audiences. It is an exercise in generosity, insofar as the exegete lends some of his better rhetoric to another and augments the author's insights with his own, with the surplus meaning credited back to the original texts. In this regard, exegetic craft is akin to poetry translation, where you can't render the text literally and must keep searching for fresh linguistic strategies to recapture the text's original spirit in a different language.
There are many themes in your study that have preoccupied me for years, including chaos theory and postmodernism. Sometime in the mid-80's, I wrote an essay on quantum mechanics, chaos theory, and pragmatist sociology, then sent it to Ilya Prigogine, who was among the inspirations behind that project. He answered with a polite letter, encouraging me to continue my work but expressing skepticism about my musings about quantum mechanics' applicability to human affairs. I kept mining the field, most recently in my writings on conceptualist art and dissimulacrum, but nothing much ever came out of it.
You ask me where did I publish my thoughts on the subject. My basic arguments were spelled out in several essays, including "Pragmatism and Social Interactionism," American SociologicalReview 51:9-30 (1986); "The Pragmatic Origins of Symbolic Interactionism and the Crisis of Classical Science," Studies in Symbolic Interaction 11:226-258 (1991); "Critical Theory and the Pragmatist Challenge," American Journal of Sociology 96:237-279 (1992); and "Modernity, Postmodernism, and Pragmatist Inquiry: An Introduction," Symbolic Interaction 15:303-332 (1993). I must have sent you some of that stuff. But the notion of "dissimulacrum" surfaced only about a year ago in my letter to Mikhail Epstein. A few more wrinkles were added to it in my note to Alexander Genis (both items are now part of our conference fund of ideas). The main thesis was presented in Boston at the 1996 Annual Meeting of the Slavic Association and fleshed out in a paper "The Conceptualist Dissimulacrum: Notes on Russian Postmodernism" which I delivered last August in Toronto at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association. This paper doesn't advance the argument beyond what I already said earlier. I hoped to flesh out the idea further and convert this material into an article, but so far couldn't find the time. (Incidentally, you translate the term "dissimulacrum" into Russian as antisimulakrum – wouldn't a dissimulakrum be a better rendering?).
I had flash-back memories reading your book. It is clear to me that my original thoughts were not particularly original. Certainly, my first essay on the subject is dated. The subsequent work appears more promising. It casts democracy as a historically specific mode of managing uncertainty that contrasts with the nondemocratic strategies for handling indeterminacy. Last Summer I read Bakhtin for the first time, and his work gave a new impetus to my research. Now I am trying to join the two main lines of inquiry that guided my work for some time – nonclassical-pragmatist-interactionist sociology and Russian society-culture-intelligentsia. The creative tension between these agendas caused me to update and partially revise my early intuitions on both fronts. My new line of thinking is reflected in the following notes. I try to join issues with you, but my thoughts probably reflect my agenda more than yours. Still, I hope you will find something useful in my comments on your research project and the way it fits with our joint undertaking.
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You paint Russian postmodernism with a broad brush, considerably expanding the list compiled by Epstein. In addition to conceptualist artists like Prigov, Kabakov, Komar, Melamid, Kibirov, Rubinstein and Eremenko, you identify as postmodernists Nabokov, Bitov, Sokolov, Tolstaya, Pietsukh, Pelevin, Popov, Sharov, Venedict and Victor Erofeev. I find this expansion justified. Your treatment differs from Epstein's who sees conceptualism as the primary postmodernist current, but the two approaches are not incompatible. Both of you rely on the same authorities to illuminate the subject (Baudrillard, Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, Barth) and some of the same concepts (simulacrum, deconstruction, carnival, irony, holy foolery). Nonetheless, your agenda is somewhat different. Epstein stresses conceptualism's ancient roots and traces Russian postmodernism to the gnostic theology of apophatism. You are apt to emphasize its decidedly modern sensibilities. The most important difference is the systematic manner in which you harness chaos theory to the postmodernist project.
Your master metaphor has its literary counterpart – "chaosmos." The term was allegedly coined by Joyce, though I wouldn't be surprised if, eventually, it is credited to another source. The idea has its precursors among ancient Greeks who were fascinated with the irrational properties of the world (Heraclites, Pyrrho, Cynics). Just as their distant predecessors, contemporary postmodernists are enthralled with chaos, randomness, and indeterminacy – a preoccupation that runs contrary to the modernist sensibilities. While modernists longed for cultural synthesis, dialogical understanding and polyphonic unity, you maintain, postmodernists embraced absurd, cacophony and disorder as the world's signal qualities. "Postmodernism embodies the principal artistic-philosophical determination to overcome the endemic to culture antithesis between chaos and cosmos, redirect creative impulse toward the search for a compromise between these two universals. Dialogue with chaos is the ultimate goal of this quest" (Pp. 39-30). Your book contributes to this dialogue by showing how postmodernist esthetics supplants the modernist project and outlining a poetics for our postmodern age.
The modernist hopes have been shattered by the two world wars, assorted gulags and genocides, and other man-made calamities that befell the 20th century. The disillusionment with utopia cast a shadow over the modernist esthetics of dialogism, creativity and aesthetic order. ". . . Each element in this dialogical structure," you write (p. 32), "has been driven to extreme, with dialogue and polyphony turning into a bazaar polyglossia and cacophony where all voices sound simultaneously, clash with each other and dissolve into an indiscriminate buzz." The postmodernist esthetics refuses to privilege reason, order and authorship. The narrator is no longer credited with omnipotence and omniscience once accorded to the author-demiurge but is dragged into the narrative as one of its characters. This esthetics manifests itself in metaprose – a signature trait of postmodernist writing. It is a prose that turns its own conception into a spectacle. The postmodern narrative curves over onto itself, exposing the narrator as a byproduct of narration and placing his constructed self on the same footing with other persona in the narrative. The postmodern discourse is a kaleidoscopic collage that forswears any claim to unity or prophetic intent. The modernist search for dialectical synthesis yields the center stage to oxymoronic nonsense, modernist optimism gives way to postmodernist pessimism. Paralogy and paradox are the stuff of which history is made. The Hegelian cunning of history that casts ironic reversals as the roundabout way in which history forges its way to a higher stage is but a self-serving rhetoric masking the ugly realities of power and violence. There is no truth, no reason, no progress in human affairs. This world is beyond redemption. All political creeds and morality systems are inherently totalitarian. Any new strategy relying on an alternative discourse, according to this postmodern narrative, simply adds a new spiral of violence to the bloody coil of human history. Hence, the "'antitotalizing' pathos of postmodernism" (p. 33), its emphasis on ironic transcendence, on the discursive strategies designed to unmask social activism as fakery and expose human institutions as simulation. Alas, postmodern irony has lost its derisive intent; it no longer accuses, cajoles and harangues, nor does it extol, profess, tell us what is to be done. The attitude it embodies is a mixture of stoicism and cynicism, the ethos it espouses is deconstructive and antitotalitarian. If it has any morale, it is that moral projects backfire. The promised land is a myth, whether it clothes itself in biblical or secular garments. Postmodernists take a radical scalpel to this myth, bringing down along with it hopes for social progress and personal improvement. Power, violence, chance and death are the only certainties postmodern philosophy and art are willing to cede us. The rest is poshlost, clothed in liberal, conservative or totalitarian rags. Unlike his avant-garde predecessor, the postmodern artist refuses to avert his eyes when he looks into the abyss; he finds a strange beauty in its violent currents, a peculiar harmony in its deafening hum, and the ultimate solace in its very randomness.
Some critics interpret this postmodern turn as "the death of art," "self-annihilation of culture," you remind us; others "are inclined to think that postmodernist esthetics discovers a new philosophical strategy for solving the mysteries of chaos and its self-regulation, the strategy that bids us to look for harmony within rather than above the chaos" (p. 33). The second position is clearly your own. Drawing on various postmodernist sources and deftly pulling together cutting edge scientific ideas, you assemble them into an elegant theoretical framework. What gives your analysis its persuasiveness and credibility is not so much its conceptual structure as an imaginative way in which you apply these by now familiar ideas to concrete art works. As the saying goes, the devil is in the details, and they are plentiful in your splendid book.
Vladimir Nabokov enters your discussion as the first postmodernist writer on the Russian and perhaps the world-historical scene. He is a man with an incredible ear for modern cant. He senses it in romantics and shopkeepers, liberals and conservatives, academics and charlatans, lovers and politicians. Poshlost is the word Nabokov uses to describe the modern cant, our uncanny ability to shield ourselves against jarring particulars through mind-numbing universals. I recently had to give a talk on Dostoyevsky and reread in this connection Notes From the Underground, where the word poshlost appears at various points. Not once was this word rendered into English in the same way. Vulgar, banal, indecent, mean – none of these words that appear in my English translation do justice to the term and convey its peculiar thrust. Perhaps Nabokov was right and the word can't be rendered into English. In my view, the familiar expression "political correctness" captures best Nabokov's sentiment. Poshlost is political correctness masquerading as moral imagination.
The world of everyday life, for Nabokov, is the world of political correctness. It is the world that is forced upon us by ideologues of all stripes who are sure they have figured it all out and have an answer to questions that humanity has been struggling with for millennia. Nabokov is particularly incensed with the totalitarian poshlost which promises to spare us the pains of judging particulars for ourselves and imposes on everyone a mandatory ideological schema. The latter only masks the world's untidy properties without doing away with them. No ideology can suppress chaos. At every turn it threatens to break into the open and shatter to pieces our rational schemes.
Nabokov's answer to the unreflexive existence that insulates us from chaos is the esthetics of concreteness, the poetics of malaise which sensitize us to the dangers inherent in any doctrine, schema or discourse. From Dar (1937) to Lolita (1995), Nabokov shows us what happens when we succumb to a regnant ideological obsession. Whether it is Chernyshevsky's liberal pathos, Humbert's romantic fantasy, or Freudian psychoanalysis doesn't really matter. Any creed flirts with disaster. Those possessed by a discourse and determined to live it through bring calamities on themselves and others.
Showing a characteristically postmodern ambivalence, Nabokov doesn't resolve the conflict between poshlost and poetry in a definitive way. He finds traces of humanity in the former and elements of cant in the latter. His own authorial preferences are deliberately obscured. He endorses everything and nothing, identifies with everyone and no one. To counter the self-serving unreflexiveness endemic to poshlost Nabokov brings writing within the writer's purview. In his novels, the author is no longer hidden outside the text, magisterially surveying the world historical drama from celestial heights. He is one of the characters in his literary narrative, a willed fiction as contingent upon the text as any other persona in it, except that he is obligated to reveal his own cant and at every opportunity reminds the reader that things could well have been otherwise. The implication is that every narrative constructs and suppresses at the same time. Whatever artifice the author sets up therefore must be immediately deconstructed through self-irony, auto-parody, mock-review, and such like stratagems designed to show how artificial painted realities are and how ruthlessly they suppress alternative constructs. This ironic stance symbolizes bemused detachment, the principal refusal to commit: "I want to balance at the very edge of parody," explains Nabokov's hero, "and do so hanging above the abyss of seriousness, carefully feeling my way along this narrow path between my truth and my parody on it" (V. Nabokov, Dar, Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1975, p. 225). As you rightly notice, this is a paradigmatically postmodern stance.
From Nabokov, you move to Andrei Bitov, Venedict Erofeev and Alexander Sokolov, the writers whose principal work was done in the 60's and the 70's. Whatever traces of the modernist nostalgia for harmony and order we find in Nabokov are gradually exorcised in Bitov, Erofeev and Sokolov. What is interesting is that these three authors make their postmodernist discoveries independently of Nabokov and most other Western sources. Decentering, deconstruction, metaprose, stylistic crossbreeding, an urge to debase the noble and ennoble the base – all these paradigmatic traits of postmodernist art have their counterparts in Russian postmodernism.
In Bitov's Pushkinskii Dom, the "author-creator finds his double in the novelist-narrator who always complains about his difficulties with the novel, keeps changing the narrative plans, and finally arranges a meeting with his hero, who is dealt with sticky questions (the answer for which are obviously well known to the novelist)" (p. 122). The Pushkin House is itself a postmodern metaphor for a reality that has long been dead or faked or both, and that eventfully flies in the face of those who doggedly insist on treating it as a true thing. It is also a metaphor for the naive sophisticates who insist on treating themselves as real selves. Such efforts only manage to multiply our misery. We live in a simulacrum, our selves are simulations, our future is as chimeric as our past, and no one else excels more in passing a copy for the original than Soviet intellectuals. "Bitov's most important discovery consists in the fact that, long before Baudrillard and his followers, he disclosed the simulative character of Soviet mentality, the simulative nature of Soviet culture, i.e., the predominance of phantom constructs, images and copies that exist without the original" (p. 125).
The postmodern project finds a powerful voice in Venedict Erofeev. His poem in prose, Moskva-Petushki, is arguably the most convincing aesthetic rendering of Zygmunt Bauman's precept that chance is fate. Venichka, a Christ-like figure, a holy fool bearing the author's name, is a hapless postmodern hero who exposes the entire divine cosmos as a cruel hoax. All he wants is to be left alone. His needs are few: get a drink, quench his thirst after a hangover, make his way as unobtrusively as possible to his beloved son. Yet things keep getting in his path. He searches for a rational explanation to the inanities of the world, but the task proves daunting. Things just don't add up. Which is why he drinks and drinks and drinks: "You want to know why? Cause I am sick to the heart but can't let anybody know it. Cause as long as I remember myself I have been simulating sanity; I've been doing it nonstop, wasting all my mental, physical and whatever other energies I have on this exercise" (Venedikt Erofeev, Ostavte moiu dushu v pokoe, Moscow: AO "KHGS," 1995, p, 58). Indeed, drinking appears to be the remedy, even if only temporary, against this world's resplendent absurdities. "Venichka doesn't enjoy staring in the face of metaphysical chaos. In fact, he is terrified by it. Still, he doesn't shy away from this absurd, he tries to mesmerize it with his word" (p. 171). You can carry out a dialogue with chaos, but you can't make it go away. It always comes back just as you think you've got a handle on it. It is primordial chaos that sends Venichka into random hiccups, gives him morning hangovers, puts the booze out of his reach, and ultimately claims his life, as the four horsemen of the apocalypse disguised as Soviet hoodlums chase him down the Red Square. All his pleas go unanswered. The thieves do not return his bottles, the angels don't cure his hiccups, and the Almighty doesn't spare his life. Venichka sacrifices his life without any hope for future redemption for himself or others. His irony reaches its heights and becomes truly pathetic in the final scenes. Modern pathos and postmodern irony have merged in a dialectical unity of opposites, producing what may be called "the pathos of irony" – a postmodern equivalent of catharsis.
Alexander Sokolov's main character is a fool, whose schizophrenic internal dialogue mirrors schizophrenia sprouting in the outside world. Classical polyphonism is turned here on its head. Different voices sound all at once, blending into a violent din that furnishes a fitting backdrop for the institutionalized and informal violence permeating the "School for the Fools" where the book's narrative unfolds. "That's right, these are the idiots who hang cats in a fire escape, spit into each other faces and wrestle from each other donuts during a lunch recess, quietly pee into somebody else's pocket, twist your arms and jump you in the dark" (p. 180). Violence, Sokolov tells us, is the heart of chaos; dressing it up into a nifty ideological discourse makes it all the more violent and deadly. The dialogue with chaos ends up as fatefully in Sokolov's novel as it does in Erofeev's poem. The postmodernist narrative moves forward in Sokolov's fiction where "dialogue between chaoses" replaces dialogue with chaos. "The transformation of the dialogue with chaos into the dialogue between chaoses sublates tragedy. Perhaps it is in the 'Schools for the Fools' that chaos is for the first time seen as a norm rather than as an abyss, accepted as our normal habitat rather than a temporary source of pain and misery" (p. 106).
Your next stop is a group of so-called "new wave writers" which includes among others Tatiana Tolstaya, Viacheslav Pietsukh and Victor Erofeev. They carried the postmodernist torch in the 80's. The writers who rode this wave deconstruct the notion of metaprose, which still owed much to the modernist image of the artist as a creator. Tolstaya's ironic prose decenters the narrator, turns her into a flickering light; her fairy tales style doesn't allow us to get a firm grip on the author and her stance. Chance reigns supreme in Tolstaya's tales, but this chance lost its capacity to terrify or elate. Things happen in everyday life according to the inscrutable logic of fate. There is no point trying to figure it out. Chance is our destiny. Sooner or later, the wheel of fortune runs over you and me. What appeared to be good luck reveals itself as a disaster in Tolstaya's account, and what seemed like an abject defeat gives one a new lease on life, even if this is only a temporary reprieve. There is a certain eerie serenity about Tolstaya's prose. The emotional landscape her decentered heroes inhabit is drained of passion. This is what Holocaust survivors might feel surveying the remains of their days. The effect is particularly nauseating because the survivors of emotional gulags populating her stories are often children.
Victor Erofeev's muse, by contrast, is passionate and cruel. It aims to prove that every strong discourse breeds violence. Erofeev's fiction often reads as "a culturological study" that dissects hegemonic discourses behind our individual voices. They may differ on the surface but they are very much alike in their propensity to trigger bloodshed. The power is a driving force behind any strong discourse, the power equally enjoyed by the radicals, liberals and conservatives. "Ultimately it doesn't matter which discourse serves us as a reference frame: the discourse of power or powerlessness, of freedom or violence, of liberalism or tyranny. . . The result is the same" (p. 248). If there is any hope to be found in our violent world fueled by ideological narrative it is in subverting all coherent narrative, making it disintegrate into nonsense. Incoherence is the power of the powerless and the best safeguard against the totalitarian proclivities of discourse.
The subject matter of Viacheslav Pietsukh's prose is history in general and "the Russian national absurd" in particular. The heroic feats of the Russian past are as much a historical fiction as the heroic achievements of the Soviet present. The pseudo-chronicles of the Central-Ermolaev wars which depict the internecine conflict between the two villages serve the author as a parable of the meaninglessness and incomprehensibility of history as such. Paradoxically, it is this very absurdity that infuses the lads from warring factions with the sense of purpose, makes them feel exquisitely alive. Hence, the "historical value of absurdity" (p. 240). For Pietsukh, you note, "Russian history has always been absurd to the core, just as Soviet history is, which means that Russian classical literature has not 'mirrored' reality as much as modeled it, continuously supplying us with the ideals by which we can live our lives. . . . The Russian lives his life with one eye constantly trained on Russian literature" (p. 235).
Your final stop is conceptualist art exemplified by the works of Vladimir Sorokin, Vitaly Komar, Alexander Melamid and Dmitri Prigov. Sots artists unleash on their audiences a mother load of artistic clichés produced by the three generations of socialist realists. It is an ultimate reductio ad absurdum. The cliché is taken literally, as in Sorokin's fiction, where the oddly tasting "socialist norm" is literally force-fed to every Soviet citizen, the workers' "golden hands" are cut off, melted into gold nuggets, and exchanged by the Soviet authorities for Western technology, and so on ad nauseam. If Sorokin drives the socialist narrative to the logical extreme where it becomes physically revolting, Komar and Melamid give it a different spin, posing as hyper-socialist-realists nostalgically looking back at their childhood encounters with the dogma. Their version of sots art exposes Soviet mythology, which, as Catherina Clark demonstrated, was build around archetypical myths glorifying rites of passage, passing of the torch, celebrating tribal unity, asserting collective immortality, and so forth. But sots art wasn't just an attempt to wrestle socialist discourse to the ground. It can also be read as its purest expression. This is exactly how Boris Groys interprets sots art – the Soviet reality remythologized.
A characteristic quote from Prigov appears in your book, Mark. In it, Prigov juxtaposes Sorokin and Chekhov as the perfect expressions of the modernist and postmodernist sensibilities:
Precisely in his [Chekhov's] writing this exceedingly thin film of nice, delicate and touching human relationships is meant to cover up, stave off the terrifying subterranean chaos (terrifying from Chekhov's standpoint, of course) that threatens to burst out and blow away with its foul breath the thin, restraining film of culture. . . . [T]he film with which Sorokin deals differs from the one envisioned by Chekhov, and not just in its historical particulars but in its cardinally new intent. That is to say, his film no longer masks the chaos but clings to man, envelops him, and more than that – it tries to usurp his place, his thoughts and feelings. Having come that close to the human being, the film [of civility] brings him that much closer to chaos (A. Prigov, "A im kazalos v Moskvu! v Moskvu!", Pp. 117-116 in Vladimir Sorokin, Moskva: Russlit, 1992).
It is the modern man who struggles to insulate himself from chaos, Prigov seems to tell us; the postmodern man doesn't avert his gaze and stares right back at it. He may not bring chaos to heel, but at least he is not going to feed himself illusions and half-truths about his ability to tame it. Treating absurdity with discursive remedies is like spoon-feeding fish oil to someone afflicted with Carposi sarcoma. Trim your political agenda, decenter your whole being, anesthetize yourself with irony, and chaos won't seem half as bad as it does to a sober-minded man stuck up on reason and civility.
The last few pages is where you leave the exegetic mode and openly speak in your own voice. The Russian postmodernism, you point out, may have reached a critical point in its development. "The semantic reduction of dialogism, the shift from a dialogue with chaos to the monological acceptance of chaos, the self-destruction of freedom and the ultimate transformation of artistic playfulness into a new (and in reality the old ultramodernist) mythology – all these trends suggest that the poetics of Russian postmodernist reached in the 80's and especially in the 90's a crisis state" (p. 283). You end your book on a constructive note. Dialogue with chaos need not to end in despair. The discourse of chaos does not obviate the need for order: "Without comprehending chaos one can not experience harmony and eternity which, in turn, is inseparable from chaos and disorder" (p. 295). You see hopeful signs in what Susan Strehle calls "actualism," an emerging current in Western postmodern fiction whose adherents blend realism and antirealism into an art form that acknowledges chance and disorder without giving up on freedom and personal responsibility. You sense this trend in the works of Pelevin, Makanin, Kharitonov, Dovlatov, Paley, Dmitriev, Ivanchenko, Ermakov and other contemporary Russian writers who don't allow absurdity to vanquish humanism. The new ethos is evident in the return to the Buildungroman updated for our postmodern times. Its hero is coming into his own, discovering chaos in the process and learning to live with it. Although he never surmounts chaos, he discovers that its absurdity doesn't preclude meaningful existence, personal choice and freedom. "Characteristically, the incontestable for the 20th century literature idea that treats meaning as a consequence of freedom is transformed in this prose into the notion that meaning is a precondition of freedom, a condition without which freedom turns into a play toy or an empty token – into 'the unbearable lightness of being,' as Milan Kundera put it" (p. 316).
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My summary is far too schematic to do justice to your multi-stranded, generously documented narrative. But in very rough outlines, this is the gist of your argument. I agree pretty much with everything you have to say about postmodernism and its relationship to chaos theory. Yours is a seminal tack imminently worth taking. What I want to do is to take issue with the way postmodernists appropriate chaos and face up to its moral dilemmas. I see some alternative discursive strategies for handling the uncertainty that American pragmatism has to offer.
From the start, this philosophy hailed a pluralistic, uncertain universe brought into being by its conscious inhabitants. "Other sculptors, other statues from the same stone! Other minds, other worlds from the same monotonous and inexpressive chaos!", exclaimed William James over a hundred years ago, (The Principles of Psychology, Vol. 1, New York: Dover,  1950, p. 289). "My world is but one in a million, alike embedded, alike real to those who may abstract them." Few people appear to know that John Dewey's Quest for Certainty (1929) was a direct response to Heisenberg's classic work on the uncertainty principle. Even before Heisenberg, Dewey hailed "a universe which is not all closed and settled, which is still in some respect indeterminate and in the making, . . . an open universe in which uncertainty, choice, hypotheses, novelties and possibilities are naturalized" (Pragmatism and American Culture, Boston: D. C. Heath,  1950). Many of Dewey's subsequent publications on liberalism, civic society and American democracy articulated the logic and ethics for the Age of Uncertainty. It is indeed a quaint view, according to pragmatists, that holds reality to be objective because it has nothing to do with the subject and treats subjectivity as something that follows no logic other than personal whim.
Pragmatic hermeneutics offers a viable alternative to postmodern hermeneutics when it comes to handling chaos and moral ambiguity. Postmodern hermeneutics strikes me as a reaction, or rather over-reaction, to the modern era's infatuation with science, technology and social engineering. Scientism breeds a peculiar species of utopianism by making promises on behalf of reason it couldn't possibly keep. As Heisenberg showed, built into our knowledge is a margin of uncertainty that couldn't be overcome by technical means and that sets a natural limit to social engineering. Postmodernists rightfully seize upon this message, but they tend to get carried away with it, forgetting that chaos and order are related as a figure and background, that one is meaningless without the other. Chaos is order in the making as much as pattern on the decline. Every pattern is ultimately a pattern of uncertainty against which the pattern stands out, a calculated balance of what can and what can't be predicted. If no one pattern reigns supreme, it is not just because some unfathomable forces of chaos conspire to stamp it out, but because many patterns rub against each other, making the outcome less than certain. Chaos is the collision of orders, while order is a system of more or less randomly emerging patterns.
Notice that patterns in question are not real entities existing apart from us – they are emergent realities contingent on determining human activity. To terminate indeterminacy is to bring definite terms to bear on the situation. This situation can be under-determined as well as over-determined. That's to say, indeterminacy means not only that the terms are in short supply but also that they are overabundant. Precisely because the world out there is not completely determined in and of itself, the quantum of value-bound human action is needed to make it round to the eye, to render it objective and meaningful. An active individual, a self-conscious agent converts the flux of things themselves into the steady flow of objective reality. "The familiar world of color, sound and structure is his practical accomplishment, i.e., he hears because he listens to, he sees because he looks at, he discerns a pattern because he has a stake in it, and when his attention wavers, interest ceases, and action stops – the world around him sinks back into the state of indeterminacy" (Shalin, "Pragmatism and Social Interactionism," American SociologicalReview 1986, 51:9-30, 10). Whatever rationality we find in the world, consequently, is of our own making.
Pragmatists and postmodernists share this precept, which goes back to German idealism. They differ on the nature of determination, however. Postmodernists cast it as a signifying activity or discursive practice that assigns meaning to external things. Pragmatists insist that both symbolic and nonsymbolic instrumentalities are deployed when we carve out an order out of chaos. To be is not just to be discursive, to lend one's voice to a patented discourse; it also means to be vocal, emotional, embodied, constructive and deconstructive. This view cuts through the dualism permeating postmodern thought and yields a different perspective on language.
Postmodernist theory has imbibed the Cartesian dualism that informed French thought since Descartes. This dualism is evident in Durkheim, Saussure and Levi-Strauss as much as in Derrida, Baudrillard and Foucault. The French tradition privileges the sign as the authentically linguistic phenomenon and poses a binary opposition between the signifier and the signified. It makes no provisions for tertium quid mediating this relationship. Pragmatists favor a triadic relationship that inserts a practical interpretant between the signifier and the signified. Their semiotics postulates that symbols are but one side of human communication, which also involves icons and indexes – all semiotic phenomena in their own right firmly embedded in conduct as a whole. Linguistic utterances are embodied activities bound to feelings, emotions, facial expressions, bodily postures and complex movements – they engage the entire organism. I define this aspect of linguistic behavior as "voice" and contrast it to "discourse," which refers to signs and symbols abstracted from their vocal substance. Voice is an umbilical cord that ties us to nature, to the material world. In its attempt to be purely symbolic, discourse cuts this umbilical cord and systematically suppresses the iconic and indexical properties of communication. We can say that discourse is disembodied voice and voice is embodied discourse.
From the discourse-analytical standpoint, sign is the true substance of discourse. It is meant to be transparent to meaning, its body completely irrelevant to what it signifies. Looked at from this angle, the expression "I love you" means the same thing whether it is written or verbalized, framed in the 12 pitch or 10 pitch, rendered in capital or small case letters, signed in Cyrillic or Japanese script – its pure sign value stays more or less the same. The voice-analytical perspective highlights live speech, intonation, vocal delivery – the iconic/indexical properties of communication essential to pragmatist linguistics. What is said is no more important than how it is said. The bodily accompaniment has significance quite apart from the message's semantic content. Given an ironic twist, the expression "I love you" may well mean the opposite of what its purely semantic content implies. This is what Bakhtin tried to articulate when he criticized Saussurean linguistics and urged attention to utterance, intonation, life speech genres. This is what George Mead and Lev Vygotsky seemed to have in mind when they urged to move beyond the thought-sign toward the larger behavioral context of linguistic consciousness. And this is, I take it, what Charles Peirce sought to communicate when he brought into one continuum icons, indexes and signs. (In my last year at the University of Leningrad I wrote a thesis on Mead and Vygotsky, but now I see that it should have also covered Peirce and Bakhtin).
Voice is silently present in every discourse. It is a bio-semiotic event that links human discourse to subhuman communication and hints at the origins we share with other mammals. This semiotic phenomenon is marked by what Peirce calls "firstness" or "iconicity." Voice is a perfect example of an icon, of a medium that is also a message. As an iconic body of the sign, voice tends to stay in the background of symbolic exchange. It does its job as a carrier of arbitrary meaning, the way a "red octagon" at the intersection presents itself as a "stop sign." But just as the shape, color and position of the stop sign mean something quite apart from the sign's intended meaning, the voice in discourse means something quite apart from what it was intended to mean. We behold it with all our senses, paying special attention to the discrepancies between its proclaimed intent and its non-assigned significance. Thus, we look beyond the forbidden discourse and identify with an outlaw blessed by a sensible voice and withhold our sympathy from a mendacious sheriff or a conniving politician spouting a politically correct line. In real life, a communist party member can show emotional intelligence even when he dresses his message in the official terminological garb, while a dissident espousing liberty and justice may acquit oneself as an intolerant person through his vocalization. In all such cases, we are attuned to the various levels of signification through the tension between iconic, indexical and symbolic properties of discourse.
If voice is an icon marked by firstness, then the emotion it conveys is an index characterized by "secondness." As every genuine index, emotion partakes in the event about which it testifies without being identical with it (weather vane comes to mind as another common example). Emotions reveal attitudes that may or may not be readily accessible to the organism itself. To the extent that these bodily dispositions become available to the individual and are intentionally communicated to others, our emotions acquire the quality of "thirdness" and turn into "signals." Sign's body begins to shrivel in size and significance at this point. Discourse grows oblivious of its vocal substrate as it moves away from live speech to written communication. In purely symbolic communication, sign's value is effectively severed from the sign's body, which is not supposed to mean anything in and of itself, only what members of a language community arbitrarily allow it to mean. All consciously signifying activity is, in this respect, dissimulating, its iconic significance and indexical proximity to the event being sacrificed to its symbolic value.
As discourse grows autonomous, it comes to dominate and colonize voice. It turns into politically correct speech that wants to be taken at face value. Politically correct signing subdues messy particulars with patented universals in a drive to maximize certainty. Accounting designed to capture things themselves systematically glosses over their qualities that don't fit the accounting schema. Unfettered voice would have alerted us to the recalcitrant particulars tossed around by chaotic crosscurrents, but discourse sweeps the mess under the rug and imposes a seal of official determination on a muddled situation. Whereas intentional dynamics attuned to uncertainty quickly registers unpredictable changes in the situation, discourse stays its course and glosses over the particulars that won't fit into its ideological mold. Voice always tells us more than discourse intends to. For we aren't just talking heads and mouthpieces for master discourses; we are emotionally-charged, full-throated, gut-wrenching voices whose iconic presence breaks though discourse. Voice may turn into a whimper when discursive oppression is overwhelming, it may sound like a howl of a wounded animal, it can become temporarily inaudible, but it speaks volumes to us if we care to listen and pay close attention to its peculiar semantics, syntax and style.
While postmodern hermeneutics privileges discourse over voice, pragmatist hermeneutics favors voice over discourse. Unlike the postmodernist who is bent on exposing voice as a mouthpiece of discourse and reducing it to an archetype through intertextual deconstruction, the pragmatist aims to recover voice within discourse, to appropriate a unique experience shining through worn-out discursive devices. The relationship between voice and discourse is not a transitive one, however. While voice is a silent presence in every discourse, the reverse is not necessarily true. We can't dialectically invert this proposition and say that discourse is a silent presence in every voice. Voice is there before discourse the way moaning is there before meaning. Minding precedes mind. Voice-sensitive hermeneutics acknowledges that the individual needs some discourse to communicate his experience to others, but it is always on the lookout for novel, emergent, unpredictable inflections that subvert and update the familiar discursive pattern. When the same text appears on more than one occasion, it means a different thing each time. Thus, a quotation from Marx acquires a new connotation depending on whether it is invoked by Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Lukacs, Gramsci, Lifschitz or Ilienkov. Novel linguistic events happen; to recover them, to discern a unique way in which a familiar universal has been particularized is the task of pragmatic hermeneutics.
Let me pause here for a moment and qualify my enthusiasm for pragmatism, lest it is confused with smugness. I don't invite postmodernists to consign their theoretical garments to the flames, nor do I deny that pragmatism has blind spots and obfuscations all its own. The fact that I favor this discourse doesn't mean it is superior to others. Pragmatists and postmodernists labor in much the same vineyard, and each discourse should be judged not by its declarations but by its pragmatic consequences. Voice is no factum brutum; it is a theoretical abstraction, just as discourse is. Voice has to latch onto a discourse to make its owner's experience accessible to others, and discourse requires live voices to perpetuate itself. Human voice and human discourse work in concert. If I elevate voice at the expense of discourse, it is because I want to draw attention to pragmatism's overlooked potential and use it to counter the postmodern tendencies I consider harmful.
Postmodernists correctly sense the danger inherent in discourse production. Language that speaks us is not just a figure of speech. It reflects the all too familiar situation where one is forced to say something one couldn't possibly mean, sign feelings one doesn't feel, suppress emotions deemed to be politically incorrect. Hence, the need to rescue voice buried under discourse. But is discourse really such a menace? Is it always to be blamed? Should we agree with Prigov that "every language harbors within itself a totalitarian ambition to conquer the entire world, to cover it with its terms and who itself is an absolute truth" (Literaturnaia Gazeta, 05/12/93). To be sure, discourse can be used to clobber people over their heads, but it also has a therapeutic dimension, it helps us break the stranglehold of the dead speech on our minds, and gives exquisite pleasures to those who have mastered it. Freud's, Ricoeur's and Habermas's intuitions are all on target here. Discourse does a lot more than postmodernists would allow. It sickens and it heals, it enslaves and empowers, it stunts creativity and opens new horizons of meaning – it is a floating signifier to which we attribute agency that rightfully belongs to those who speak the discourse.
Remember Brodsky: "The poet is the instrument of language." This line can be read as a variation on Heidegger's maxim "language speaks the speaker." Brodsky played with this thesis when he gave a public talk at the UNLV a few years ago. I remember him saying that few Russian writers dared to immerse themselves in the Russian language and allowed its powerful currents to stir them toward truth. He named Platonov as one of the exceptions. Solzhenitsyn, he said, had a considerable linguistic acumen, but he resisted language, didn't allow himself to be carried away by it. There is some important truth encysted in this dictum, and some obfuscation. I asked Brodsky, how come Platonov, Solzhenitsyn and Brodsky spoke the same Russian language, yet each was deposited on a vastly different linguistic shore and had such remarkably different insights to offer? Could it be that these individuals were not merely hapless instruments in the hands of language but active beings guided in their linguistic journeys by their emotional intelligence and moral intuition? I need to check with those present how exactly Brodsky answered my query, for my memories are rather dim. He might have said something to the effect that it is language that lets you have any particular insight, but I don't think he joined issue with me. Again, I find pragmatist intuitions more inspiring than those that animated Heidegger and his postmodernist followers. We only need to take a closer look at Soviet discourse to realize that we speak language as much as language speaks us.
If you take postmodernists literally, you would think that Soviet discourse completely dominated life in the Soviet Union. Every human being appears in this account as a parrot babbling official verbiage. The reality, as we know, was more complex. Not all discursive practices fitted the official mold. There were semi-official, non-official, dissident, anti-Soviet discursive forms that existed along side endless variations on the master discourse, variations that sometimes strayed so far from the main theme that they effectively became themes in their own right. "Discursive genres" strike me as a far better calibrated tool than "master discourse" when it comes to accounting for the Soviet speech situation. Following Bakhtin, we can picture language as a living continuum extending from archetypal myths, mythologems and master discourses to discursive fields, speech genres and speech dialects, all the way down to local lingos and individual speech variations. What makes this a living continuum is a speech act fueled by voice – a voice that does not let itself to be consumed by discourse. I would dare say that there are more discursive fields, real or potential, in any modern society than there are individual members who partake in them. This applies to a country as repressive as the Soviet Union.
Even before Stalin's death, there were plenty of linguistic forms to chose from. After 1953, the choice expanded dramatically. Overlapping or independent as they were, Soviet discourses didn't gobble up the individual completely. The Soviet individual partook in many discursive fields, borrowed from different terminological arsenals, and displayed a bewildering variety of selves. Discursive fields left him considerable leeway as to how the individual would terminate indeterminacy and quantify oneself. The self emerging on the intersection of such fields was decentered, it spilled over discursive borderlines and was only partially predictable. Individual behavior was akin to a wave that moved in all sorts of directions, occasionally registering as a particular with a definite identity. The Soviet individual never ceased to emerge as a person and repeatedly surprised himself and others with his nonconventional role playing. Surely, he felt the gravitational pull of various idio-languages, but these were only discursive blueprints. Which one would prove decisive in shaping his quantum-self often could be predicted, but then only with a margin of uncertainty.
If individual selves continued to emerge in Soviet society, so were discursive fields contingent on identities assumed by individuals. Speech genres proliferated, discursive communities multiplied, including many that had no official stamp of approval. Few if any discursive norms were sacred among Soviet citizens. Some were ignored, others given lip service, still others honored in the breach. When a certain discursive form would grow stale or oppressive, the Soviet individual used irony, parody, travesty and kindred vocal strategies intended to dramatize an assumed identity as bogus, to highlight one's speech as "merely" official discourse. The Soviet individual was a master of his discourse, not its passive victim whose identity was stamped on his forehead. For all its simulating and dissimulating proclivities, Soviet society didn't abolish reality. Every Potemkin portable village needed speakers to lend their voices to official discourses. The vocal presence continued to be felt right in the middle of an official spectacle. Discursively constructed in this haphazard fashion, Soviet society was neither a complete chaos nor a monolithic order but a semi-ordered chaos continuously shaped and reshaped by self-conscious actors. Which is how human society looks when captured through the pragmatist-interactionist optics. "Society transpires here as a universe of interferentially overlapping fields, coalescing around symbols and meanings and exerting various pressures on individuals caught in their gravitational pull. When the borderlines separating these interactional fields are strictly policed, they behave like 'bodies,' revealing their 'corpuscular' qualities. On other occasions, their 'wave-like' properties are more in evidence, as crisscrossing identifications whittle away at their thingness, making the fields appear as fuzzy, gaseous, easily penetrable formations" (Shalin, 1986, Op. Cit., p. 18).
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I have traveled full circle and returned to where I started: chaos, uncertainty and moral responsibility. Postmodernists, in my view, come down much too hard on discourse and are too pessimistic about our ability to lead a sane existence in this absurd world. Their stark and cheerless visage of the world steeped in chaos should not be taken literally. As any resource, discourse could be misused and abused, but it is a valuable resource nonetheless. It helps us get a handle on chaos, to convert it into semi-ordered chaos or, if you prefer, semi-chaotic order. Contrary to postmodernist wisdom, rhetoric matters. Liberal rhetoric breeds fewer totalitarian consequences than communist rhetoric. Democratic discourse lets you manage uncertainty in a more humane way than a nondemocratic discourse. Looked at from this angle, "democracy is a historically specific mode of managing uncertainty. [Its institutions] promote conflicting life-forms, open up public discourse for an ever-widening range of participants, and maximizes public's role in defining the terms in which indeterminacy can be legitimately terminated" (Shalin, 1991, p. 266). This approach shifts the theoretical focus from the economic to the terminological means of production of objective reality. Nondemocratic polities seek to monopolize this control, democratic societies decentralize it. While the latter system increases the margin of uncertainty and spurs dissipative processes, it offers more flexibility and furnishes a greater over-all stability than the authoritarian polities do (this is one reason why "plan" is currently bowing to "market"). "[Democracy] . . . recognizes that uncertainty is inevitable and then turns it to positive account" (John Dewey and John Childs, The Educational Frontiers, New York: Appleton-Century, 1933, p. 309). Indeed, democracy thrives on uncertainty, encourages its members to judge particulars for themselves, and compels us to revise our universals. It also designates an expansive private domain where individuals are left to their own devices and can experiment with unorthodox terminological practices.
Democratic discourse is superior to its alternatives in yet another respect: it cultivates human voice and rewards emotional intelligence. These qualities indispensable to sane living fall under the heading of civic culture. Civic virtue thrives in the emotional culture which promotes trust, tolerance, prudence, compassion, humor, and it wilts when overexposed to suspicion, hatred, vanity, cruelty and sarcasm (you will find this statement reprinted from my newspaper column on the back of our conference program). Mistaken are those who pin their hopes on correct political "signals" and dismiss emotional littering as mere "noise." The vocal medium is very much the message when it comes to politics. While emotions that confer dignity on the other are democracy's lifeblood, violent emotions that hold others in contempt subvert its sacred thrust. Emotional sanity is, consequently, as central to democracy as discursive political rationality.
If democracy is aching today, it is in part because we have neglected the emotional intelligence which nourishes it. Civil rights are no substitute for civility. Nor is political correctness, whether it comes in radical, liberal, conservative, or any other garb. Political correctness is ultimately a failure of moral imagination. I use the latter term to designate our ability to wade through unwieldy circumstances and bring sanity into this world without succumbing to absurd or closing eyes to chaos. You can't bring chaos to heel but you can tame it, and then some, if you are willing to makes sense together and cultivate your emotional intelligence. This is where Chekhov becomes relevant again.
I couldn't disagree more with Prigov about this remarkable figure on the Russian cultural scene. Prigov's take on Chekhov as a quintessential modernist and Sorokin as his postmodern antithesis is very clever. It is entirely consistent with the Nietzschean ethos of radical postmodernism, which dismisses a call for civility as a failure of nerve, a species of feint-heartedness to be remedied by the robust postmodernist invectives. I read Chekhov differently. In my reckoning, Anton Chekhov showed moral imagination when he refused to succumb to chaos and urged his countrymen to practice political sanity and cultivate emotional intelligence in a society that was all messed up. He countered the Russian absurd with his tactics of small-scale projects and took solace in civic virtue. His advice still rings true today: "Start with yourself, reach out to your neighbors, communicate to others your good will, give credit to your enemies wherever it is due, have courage to admit when the problem has no ready solution, avoid grand-standing and take up small deeds. In sum, make sure your emotions are intelligent and your intellect is emotionally sane" (forgive me for yet another auto-citation).
Here is a real life parable that illuminates the theory of small deeds. A man is walking down along the seashore after a storm which washed ashore countless little sea creatures. A little boy is picking them up, throwing them back to see. "Why are you doing this," asks the man. "There are hundreds of thousands of them – what difference does it make if you save a few?" The boy picks up another little see horse, returns it to its elements, and says: "It makes a difference for this one . . . and for this one . . . and for that one too. . . ."
As world-weary adults, postmodernists see no point in trying. They allowed themselves to be mesmerized by the enormity of the task and the sheer dimensions of chaos. They convinced themselves that constructive efforts are absurd in the face of impending destruction and imminent death. Hence, their ethics is nihilist, their engagement is deconstructive, their ironic strategies are aimed at discourse communities that haven't yet fully unraveled. The ethics of uncertainty that pragmatists urge for our age rejects cynicism, calls for experimentalism, and appeals to our emotional intelligence and moral imagination. This ethics is premised on the notion that individual action makes a difference, that it matters whether we add a quantum of sanity to this world or stare blankly as it sinks into the vortex of insanity, whether we stay ironically aloof when someone is consumed by chaos or jump into its current to save a struggling soul, whether we use discourse to ridicule speech communities or to repair and expand the pluralistic universe. An overdose of ironic detachment breeds cruelty that might have been avoided were we to add a little pathos to our discursive vocalization.
Irony is the favorite tool of Russian postmodernists fighting discourse totalitarianism. They wield it like a crowbar to pry open the simulacrum, to tear down the Potemkin portable villages built by forced discursive labor. Every new blow the ironist strikes against the official reality reaffirms his freedom amidst the most coercive discourse. An ultimate weapon of the spiritual proletariat, irony proves to the intellectual that he is a subject rather than an object of discourse. Alas, ironic vigil takes its toll. The self busily disclaiming identity with itself loses track of what it really is. It knows not how to commit, empathize, make believe. Deconstructive irony is a radical epoché whose subject lost control over his destiny and no longer knows how to throw the parodic stick shift into reverse. Irony is indeed a double-edged sword: its corrosive edge cuts those who evade pathos and greets with cynicism constructive engagement. Irony can be construed as a dissimulative gesture signaling to the audience that the individual's face is but a mask, that discursive performance is not to be taken literally. Along with this gesture comes a deep aversion to direct speech. The postmodernist is someone who can't say I love you without immediately putting quotation marks around his words. He wants to distance himself from direct speech, ostensibly to protect himself from discourse's totalitarian proclivities and poshlost, but in the process he does violence to his own voice, suppresses its non-ironic modalities.
Irony is variously present in such literary genres as satire, parody and travesty. Its vocal counterpart is pathos, which thrives in epic and lyrical genres. These are two poles in a vocal continuum that we use to construct and deconstruct our social worlds. Without going into detailed discussions and definitions, let me say that satire scorns, parody mocks, travesty feigns, irony winks, bathos affects, and pathos makes believe. (I hesitate to place irony squarely in this continuum as it partakes in many genres, but I feel it could function as a particular speech genre, in which case it might have a rightful place somewhere between parody and travesty). Judged from this continuum, ironic modes are no more important for our sane existence than pathetic modes. Irony comes in handy when discourse grows too solemn and pious. Pathos is called for when discourse becomes derisive, irreverent and sacrilegious. Irony is an indispensable hygiene protecting our faces underneath official mask, to poke fun at self-important heroes and repressive institutions. We need self-parody "to disabuse others of the very ideas we press on them," as Mikhail Epstein put it felicitously (see his letter to me in our conference file). Tieck, Schlegel, Schleiermacher, Herzen and Kierkegaard paid homage to irony's magic touch. "He who does not understand irony and has no ear for its whisperings," wrote Kierkegaard in his doctoral dissertation, "lacks eo ipso what might be called the absolute beginnings for the personal life, lacks the bath of rejuvenation. He does not know the invigoration and fortification which, should the atmosphere become too oppressive comes from lifting oneself up and plunging into the ocean of irony, not in order to remain there, of course, but healthily, gladly, lightly to clad oneself again" (Soren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Irony. Bloomington: Indiana University Press  1965 p. 339). But irony ceases to be a defensive tactic and grows noxiously offensive when it leaves no room for the lyrical "I" and shows contempt for tact, adopts an in-your-face attitude. Seriousness is OK when it knows its limits, Bakhtin tells us. I would argue that the same applies to parody and irony.
Laughter has its violent side. Sometimes we need pathos to counter it, to extricate our words from quotation marks and turn another's speech into your own. Everyone is an ironist these days, Alexander Block commented earlier this century, and added that now it would take courage not to be ironic. Indeed, pathos requires courage when the time has come to suspend doubt and make a commitment; it builds bridges and makes fantasy come true; it calls for empathy and affirms solidarity with the other; it sets you into an e-motion without which your social construction falls apart. Just as irony, pathos can grow offensive, arrogant and coercive. It happens whenever it seeks to impose on others a politically correct line, frowns on unorthodox discourses, and treats everyone who begs to differ as a misfit whose consciousness needs to be raised. Every society seems to go through cycles where the ironic or the pathetic mode holds sway over its members. Cynicism and ethical commitment trade places. Late Soviet and early postcommunist culture have been marked by the excessive irony whose Homeric energies will be felt for a long time. But there are signs that its supremacy is withering away, as more ambivalent, lyrical modes come to the fore.
Given this historical dynamics, it seems prudent to ask if Russian postmodernists are mistaking their sordid historical conditions for the primordial nature of being. The schizophrenic discourse they embraced may have something to do with the schizophrenic realities surrounding them on all fronts. There is enough inanity in the world to make you wonder if humanity will eventually succumb to chaos; the bubble of sanity we inhabit can burst at any time; but whatever the outcome, I doubt it will have been destiny. We are participant observers in the world historical drama, and our actions just might tip the scale and make one outcome or the other more likely.
Venichka looks around and sees nothing but chaos. He cries for help – none is forthcoming from his fellow men. He turns his eyes heavenly – the Lord has forsaken him. We are led to believe that there is no hope in sight. But is it a fact or is it a figment of his alcoholic imagination? Was chance his true destiny or did he seal his own fate by yielding to the forces of chaos? Was his flight into insanity an act of courage or pathetic copout? One can argue that postmodernism inoculates us from insanity, but one can also make the case that it helps spread the disease. TO be sure, postmodernism is much too diverse a current to lend itself to easy generalization. There is much in it that is exciting, wise. Still, I feel some of its proponents take themselves too seriously. The irony is that postmodernism threatens to become political correctness for our times. The grandest narrative of them all, it spawns the repressive tolerance once attributed to the liberal establishment. Its proponents reject maximalism, absolutism, totalitarianism, but they do so in a curiously totalizing fashion. One is reminded of Turgenev's hero who sets out to prove that everything in this world is relative, and when asked – "Are you sure about that?" – replies: "ABSOLUTELY!"
Now is a good time to pause and look into the mirror. You may wonder if I ever dismount the high moral horse and get down to the dirty particulars. Indeed, how much posturing is there in my pragmatist rhetoric, or to put it in more neutral terms, Is there any flesh and blood person who meets the standard of emotional intelligence? Sergei Averintsev alerted me to this question in his February 4, 1997, letter where he offered feedback on my "Notes on the Recessive Genes in Russian Culture" (Zvezda, 1995, No. 6). In this article, I talk about the Chekhov-Losev's perspective on emotional intelligence and moral imagination. "I was puzzled by your reference to A. F. Losev, who boasted his contempt for Chekhov," Averintsev writes:
Please forgive me, but did you read his main works (especially his Dialectics of Myth) where he heaps scorn on liberalism and everything that reeks of "Renaissance" and "new Europe"? . . . Aleksei Federovich, may he rest in peace and glory, was an unusually gifted and hard-working man, whose name I cherish, all the more so that for a while I had an informal relationship with him and was somewhat of a student of his – but you are talking about quite different things. Far more appropriate would be to mention here the name of M. M. Bakhtin who developed the concept of dialogical truth and really knew how to talk to people from different walks of life. Generally speaking, the lists you compile, especially when they are intended for a Russian audience, appear to be unexpectedly arbitrary, which raises the question about the genre. When the right and the left compile their lists of "our kind of people" and "their kind of people" . . . that suites them fine; but can you, who is opposed to generalizations and committed to truth as "objective uncertainty," do the same? "There are 9 and 60 ways of constructing tribal ways,// And – every – single – one – of – them – is – right!", wrote Kipling (did he anticipate postmodernism?); by the same token, there are 9 and 60 ways of being tolerant, of being intolerant, of [.]mixing tolerance and practicing intolerance, and so on.
I take this to mean that no one has a monopoly on moral imagination. Quantum selves that we all are, we always find an occasion to fall flat on our faces. I know I do. That is, I espouse emotional intelligence, but I can't say my actions are always emotionally sane. Sometimes my voice cracks with intonations that make me cringe. And not only when I sing (an avocational pursuit), but also in other spheres where my competence is on the line. Once again, Chekhov's experience comes to mind. Here is a man who hoped to squeeze a slave out of his blood stream, drop by slavish drop, and assiduously cultivated intelligentnost. Was he always up to the challenge? Not really. Just read his correspondence, check the memoirs of his contemporaries, and you will see that he was all too human in practicing the craft of living. But he surely tried, and all of us are better off for his effort. The quantum of sanity he imparted to the world has made it a touch more bearable for all of us. Now, it is incumbent on us to try to do the same.
According to cosmologists, the fate of transgalactic formations, if not of the whole universe, turns on the strange happenings in the quantum world. Chaos theorists tell us that a little grain of sand can become a focal point around which chaos coalesces into a newly emergent order. So, maybe the quantum of sanity we bring into the world would ultimately determine whether it acts like a semi-chaotic order or a disorderly chaos.
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I have been compiling this epistle for nearly two weeks, Mark, and I haven't yet said a word about your paper and your project's relationship to our collective undertaking. And what a strange undertaking it is! Isn't it an ultimate in absurdity to have a bunch of Russians and ex-Russians to get together, in Las Vegas of all places, and try to figure out Russian culture and the prospects for Russian democracy? It is weird, all right, but then maybe we are onto something.
Our collective project goes back some eight years. It has evolved in a manner no one, myself included, could have predicted. Its main focus is Russian culture in historical and contemporary perspective. We look at the Russian past, try to find what is usable in it, see how it affects the future, and reflect on cultural resources that facilitate and inhibit democracy in Russia. One recurrent theme in our discussions is emotional culture and the role it plays in shaping Russia's future. The coercive institutions supporting the communist state have crumbled but the emotional culture bred into people's bones is very much alive. All this screaming and yelling that comes from this part of the world today is not just emotional littering best ignored; it isn't noise but a signal to which we must pay close attention. This signal comes loud and clear in various cultural discourses – political, religious, economic, artistic. The Second Nevada Conference on Russian Culture singles out one particular discourse, focusing on Russian art examining its place in Russian society, its recurrent patterns and current trends. Your project, Mark, fits perfectly with our agenda. Postmodern art speaks volumes about emotional crosscurrents in Russia today. I hope that your chapter will illuminate this dynamics the way your book does.
This does not mean that you should force your topic into an alien mold. I don't want to nudge you to take a sociological tack. You are a literary critic, you don't have to stray outside your domain if you don't want to. But then you would probably agree that Russian postmodernism was not only an artistic phenomenon; it was a movement – political, social, intellectual. The concluding chapter of your book points in this direction, and it would be great if you could augment this insight in your final chapter.
I wish I could reproduce your entire book in our volume. Since this can not be done, we need a strategy to communicate your central ideas to our readers, who are likely to know very little about Russia and Russian postmodernism. Experts will read your chapter as well, but I am thinking of my UNLV students and wondering how hard we should try to make the volume accessible to them. I think we are going to fail no matter how hard we try. We may have a problem even with graduate students at nobler institutions. But this doesn't mean we shouldn't try. There are people on our team who can write about the most technical issues in a style that makes sense to an intelligent laymen and commands attention of an expert. The rest of us will do our best. It is neither feasible nor desirable to impose the same standards on all our participants. Everyone should go with his or her strength. At the same time, we need to bear in mind that our topic is Russian art and Russian society. We bring up a particular art form to elucidate Russian culture, and we invoke Russian culture to better understand its various art forms.
Your paper is an erudite, densely packed, well-argued literary-critical study. It will be a fine contribution to our conference and our final volume (bear in mind that you will have 30-40 minutes to read your paper, so your 40 page essay will have to be condensed). You might want to tinker with your paper some more when you transform it into a chapter. From my standpoint, some of the most interesting insights you have to offer appear in the last few pages of your paper. This is where you muse about chaosmos and the tension between absurdity and meaning germane to culture. I wonder if you could bring up some of these discussions earlier in the text. It would be great if you find an overarching metaphor that could guide you through your narrative and help the reader grasp your overall thesis. Perhaps you could start with a broad metaphor of chaosmos, indicate how it comes up in high modernism, link this insight to present-day chaos theory, and then give a preview of the Russian postmodernist project. It may be a long introduction, or an introduction followed by an additional section or two, which situates Russian postmodernist art within the context of capitalist and socialist modernity. Here are some broad questions you might want to ponder:
To what extent Russian postmodernism reflects the 20th century cultural dynamics and the situation peculiar to Soviet Russia? Did Russian postmodernist poetics illuminate any interesting strategies that the Russians used to evade chaos and cope with the absurdity of Soviet life? How much have Russian postmodernists borrowed from the West and how much they invented on their own? (Try to make some more room for Nabokov, whose work you have dealt with so imaginatively in your book). How does the Russian postmodern narrative interact with Soviet political realities? How does it reflect the unique biographical circumstances of different writers? Has it been changing over time, where is it heading today, what are some of the latest trends in Russian postmodernism? Do these developments suggest that Russian postmodernism is in crises? And what does the story of Russian postmodernism tell us about the human predicament in general and Russian cultural travails in particular?
You have already touched on many of these questions, if not in your paper than in your book. The trick is to bring them up in a coherent way within the framework of a 40 page essay. Whatever you do, Mark, I am certain yours will be an important contribution to our collective undertaking.
See you in Las Vegas a couple of weeks from now.
With warm wishes,
Mark Lipovetsky's Reply
18 ноября, 1997
Я не могу передать, как меня обрадовало Ваше письмо – впрочем, вряд ли можно назвать письмом 20-страничную работу, почти трактат, самостоятельную статью, которую лично я очень хотел бы видеть опубликованной и не только потому что она лестна для меня, но и прежде всего потому что она чрезвычайно интересна по идеям, в ней высказанным. Не знаю, как Вы, но я, когда что-то пишу (не письмо, разумеется, а статью или книгу), никогда не мог вообразить человека, который все это будет читать. Читатель – для меня это некая абстракция. Вы, пожалуй, впервые разрушили эту абстракцию. Вы – читатель, о котором можно только мечтать. В вашем отзыве я встретил понимание, на которое даже чисто теоретически невозможно рассчитывать Особенно для меня важно, что Вам показались убедительными как мои конкретные разборы, так и апелляция к теориям хаоса, области, которая влечет меня неудержимо, но в которой неизбежно чувствуешь себя наглым дилетантом, произвольно истолковывающим точные концепции. Встретить в одном лице эксперта по таким разным дисциплинам – это уже почти чудо.
Более того, Ваше дальнейшее рассуждение об ограниченности постмодернизма, видном с точки зрения прагматической герменевтики, удивительно совпало с моим внутренним отношением к постмодернизму. В 1993 году вместе с моим отцом мы опубликовали статью о явлении, которое мы тогда (как я сейчас понимаю, не очень удачно) обозначили как "постреализм", имея в виду прозу Маканина, Петрушевской, Марка Харитонова, Довлатова, поэзию позднего Бродского и некоторых других авторов. Я прилагаю копию этой статьи, плюс отзыв, который мы получили на нее три года спустя, и которым я очень дорожу. Нас тогда, сразу после публикации статьи, приложили как эпигонов экзистенциализма, хотя, как мне кажется, то, что мы писали, имеет очень слабое касательство к экзистенциализму (по моим представлениям, сугубо модернистской философии). Речь, грубо говоря, шла о том, что эти авторы разрабатывают стратегию, близкую постмодернизму по своим исходным положениям, но отличную по своим выводам. У Маканина, у Петрушевской, в "Назидании" Бродского человек видит себя в пространстве хаоса, но при этом неуклонно пытается создавать локальные, хрупкие, заведомо обреченные порядки. Вносить свои личные смыслы в хаос. Не ради свободы. Куда более важным фактором оказывается зависимость – от слабого, от малого, от еще более беззащитного. Собственно, то, о чем вы так хорошо сказали притчей про морских коньков, о которой вы пишете (после Вашего письма я, безусловно, постараюсь наверстать упущенное). Но, когда я прочитал Ваши рассуждения по поводу прагматической интерпретации принципа неопределенности (стр. 9-11), то я мыслено воскликнул: вот оно! И Вы очень верно отмечаете, что эта философия в отличии от постмодернистской идеологии, обращена не к дискурсу, а голосу – с его индивидуальными обертонами. То же самое можно сказать о различиях между постмодернизмом и тем, что мы назвали "постреализмом" (имея в виду, что, во отличии от постмодернизма, этот "пост" так или иначе учитывает опыт классического реализма): в постмодернизме человека нет, есть функция определенного дискурса или точка пересечения множества дискурсов (Веничка Ерофеев, например, или герой "Школы для дураков"), в постреализме – человеку возвращено право на личную судьбу, на страдание, на поиск (пусть заведомо абсурдный), на голос, отличный от дискурса, хотя и вбирающий в себя какие-то константы, но не сводимый к ним, вот что важно и интересно. Я полагаю, что нечто близкое Susan Strehle называет "актуализмом", а Миша Эпштейн "новой искренностью". В Вашем лице я нашел философа, который давно изучает эту тенденцию, рассматривая ее крупным планом и в очень широкой и оригинальной перспективе.
Вы ведете эту тенденцию от Чехова и, скорее всего, Вы правы. Показательно, кстати, что "сорокалетние", литкомпания, появившаяся в конце 70-х, из которой вышел мой любимец Маканин, первоначально воспринималась и поносилась как эпигоны Чехова, пытающиеся возродить его внеидеологическое письмо на фоне соцреализма периода распада. Можно предположить, что Чехов на пороге модернизма угадал к чему приведет его позднейшая эволюция (такие прозрения не редкость в начале эпохи, когда еще видно "во все стороны света" – Шекспир, Пушкин, Гоголь). Возможно и иное объяснение: "чеховский рецессивный ген", прагматическая герменевтика, "постреализм" – это разные названия и разновидности одной из возможных реакций на распад "grand narratives " – классического для Чехова, модернистского / авангардистского / утопического для нас. Показательно, что мощнейшие прозрения в этом направлении появляются в русской культуре в 30-е годы, когда тупик авангардистской утопии, уже прочитывается теми, кто умеет читать – для меня прежде всего, поздним Мандельштамом и Платоновым (тоже поздним). Но показательно, что тогда же Набоков и Хармс (с другой стороны) начинает движение в сторону постмодернистской эстетики. Да, и "Поминки по Финнегану", которые многие (Brian McHale, Ihab Hassan ) рассматривают как первый постмодернистский роман, пишется тогда же.
Дальше провал почти на тридцать лет. В России он объясняется парадоксальным возвратом к утопическому сознанию – с начала во время войны и по инерции в послевоенное десятилетие (утопия этического единства), потом в период оттепели (утопия "социализма с человеческим лицом"). А потом, во второй половине 60-х, начинаются 70-е годы, на мой взгляд, самый интересный период в послевоенной истории (я мечтаю когда-нибудь написать подробную книгу об этом десятилетии), где под крышкой "застоя" происходят скрытые химические реакции огромной интенсивности, в результате которых возникает постмодернизм, разлагается соцреализм, в это же время востребуется опыт позднего Мандельштама и Платонова. Именно в семидесятые годы написаны такие шедевры в духе "прагматической герменевтики", как "Час короля" Бориса Хазанова, "Свой Круг" Петрушевской, или "Где сходились небо с холмами" Маканина. В этом же направлении работал и Довлатов, у которого абсурд образует особого рода повторяющиеся порядки (я только что закончил сочинять доклад на эту тему для AAASS ) – т.е. то, что Вы, Дмитрий, называете "semi-chaotic order or semi-ordered chaos. (с. 19)"
Я с удовольствием принимаю это определение, но оно очень близко к постмодернистскому хаосмосу, возникающему, как мне представляется, в результате самоорганизации хаоса распавшихся на куски дискурсов, когда-то авторитетных, а ныне равноправно смешных и абсурдных культурных языков. По-моему, постмодернизм и постреализм не только формируются и развиваются параллельно, влияя друг на друг. Наблюдения последних лет все более убеждают меня в том, что эти параллели постепенно сходятся. Вернее, различия между этими направлениями постепенно, в силу внутренней эволюции каждого из них, стновятся все менее и менее значительными.
Вы замечательно пишете о “"quantum of sanity", который способен сыграть роль strange attractor'а в хаотической системе. Не могу отказать себе в удовольствии процитировать Вас:
The ethics of uncertainty that pragmatists urge for our age rejects cynicism, calls for experimentalism, and appeals to our emotional intelligence and moral imagination. This ethics is premised on the notion that individual action makes a difference, that it matters whether we add a quantum of sanity to this world or stare blankly as it sinks into the vortex of insanity, whether we stay ironically aloof when someone is consumed by chaos or jump into its current to save a struggling soul, whether we use discourse to ridicule speech communities or to repair and expand the pluralistic universe.
Главный вопрос, который здесь возникает: откуда берется "grain of sanity" в insane and chaotic world? Это вопрос веры в существование неких незыблимых порядков? Или же это бесконечный процесс проб и ошибок, перебор различных, как правило, уже освоенных культурой (и дискредитировавших себя) порядков? Или непрерывный процесс создания смысла из наличного (личного) материала забот, тревог, болей, ответственности? Последняя версия, как мне кажется, близка к той интерпретации Бахтина, которую предлагают Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson в книге по этому вопросу. Неопределенность в ответе на этот важнейший вопрос делают "постреализм" крайне неустойчивой художественной стратегией, балансирующей между традиционализмом (вера) и постмодернизм (тотальное безверие), между эксперементаторством и бытописательством – балансирующим и прислоняющимся то к одной, то к другой крайности. Персональные кризисы Маканина, Петрушевской, да и Довлатова (его последние вещи явственно свидетельствовали об упадке, исключение: "Виноград") – прямое следствие этой философской невнятицы.
Что же касается постмодернизма, то он более определенен и поэтому более агрессивен. Я не могу согласиться с тем, что постмодернизм оперирует лишь разрушительной иронией. И Гумберт Набокова, и Веничка Ерофеева, и Левушка Одоевцев, и герои Соколова, пыта ю тся внести некий культурный порядок в окружающий их мир хаоса. И терпят поражения. Лучшие книги русского постмодернизма – именно об этих поражениях в попытке упорядочить хаос с помощью культуры. Когда возникает цинизм, тогда исчезает напряжение, и, соответственно, наступает кризис постсмодернистской эстетики, возникает усталость стиля, трагикомическая игра превращается в монолог от имени хаоса.
Но парадокс в том, что хаосмос в постмодернизме все-таки рождается. Это происходит больше в тексте, чем в мире героев. Собственно, об этом я пытался сказать в своей статье для Лас-Вегасской конференции – о том, что возникает новая почва между симулякром и реальностью, между пустотой и насыщенностью, между фрагментарностью и цельностью, между памятью и забвением – в конечном счете, между хаосом и космосом. Постсмодернизм в своем радикалистском, нигилистическом отрицании может зайти в тупик, фактически возрождая авангардистскую утопию (да, и вообще русский постмодернизм, ужасно заражен неизжитым и отвратительно пошлым аванагардизмом – пример моего заклятого друга Курицына здесь очень показателен). Но он же (постмодернизм, не Курицын) может создавать новые паралогические порядки, как бы разгоняя хаос культурных обломков до такой скорости, когда в нем начинаются процессы самоорганизации. И мне кажется (впрочем, возможно, я обольщаюсь, со стороны виднее), что в этой статье, которую я хотел писать как summary своей книги, а написал как полемику с собственными же соображениями об угасании постмодернизма, я нащупал механизм постмодернистской паралогии, трансформирующей деконструкцию в нечто позитивное. Во всяком случае, меня очень вдохновляет пример Пелевина, который приходит к "постреалистичским" / прагматическим выводам в процессе последовательной и, казалось бы, циничной постмодернистской деконструкции. То же самое можно сказать и о Шарове, хотя читать его гораздо тяжелее, чем Пелевина.
И здесь еще один вопрос, на который я пока не могу найти внятного ответа. Все-таки теории хаоса – это многое объясняющая, но метафора. Слова на бумаге, это не молекулы в химической реакции. Слова пишет автор, т.е. он ими так или и иначе управляет. Но тогда хаос в литературном тексте – это лишь искусно созданная иллюзия? Значит, и его самоорганизация, то, что очень хочется называть хаосмосом, – это тоже иллюзия? Какую-то надежду дает мысль Хайдеггера-Бродского о власти языка над художником, которую я понимаю именно так, что художник не вполне контролирует свой текст, что у словесного мира есть своя органическая энергия (то, что Деррида называет "архе-письмом"), и тогда аналогия с теорией хаоса может сработать. Возможно и другое предположение, что сам процесс творчества строится по логике хасоа, и хаотичность этого процесса может быть более или менее сознательно спроецирова на конструкцию текста. Но это все область догадок. Принцип неопределенности продолжает действовать.
То, что я сейчас написал, это первые и, возможно, очен поверхностные реакции на Ваше письмо. Я еще не раз буду перечитывать его, и скорее всего, у меня еще не раз возникнет потребность обсудить с Вами изложенные в нем идеи письменно или устно – как получается. И я очень надеюсь на продолжение нашего диалога (во всей бахтинской полноте этого термина).
До скорой встречи!
С огромной признательностью,
Ваш Марк Липовецкий