The Shalin-Epstein Exchange on Russian Postmodernism
October 31, 1996
PROFESSOR MIKHAIL EPSTEIN
DEPARTMENT RUSSIAN LANGUAGES
ATLANTA GEORGIA 30322
I have just finished your book on postmodernism and Russian culture. It was a treat. I enjoyed your spirited discussion of the protean times we live in, Russian artistic culture we share, and the transcultural imperative we face. My favorite chapters are on the lyrical museum, the avant-garde and holy foolery, as well as on contemporary Russian poetry. There is a certain personal quality to your writing (I'd call it intellectual sanity) that I find extremely appealing. It is evident in your diction, in the way you handle polemical issues, and break loose from the formula.
So much in your analysis rings true that one could easily forget that yours is still "a" and not "the" paradigm, i.e., an intricate conceptual machinery enabling its creator to gloss over some and bring into focus other things. If I see the same things differently, it is not because my conceptual prism gathers the refracted sun rays into a truer picture, but because I inhabit a different neck of the academic woods and take part in an alternative discourse. The comments that follow are an attempt to join issues with you. They are also my way of thanking you for the intellectual feast your book afforded me. Much of what I have to say reflects my own professional and personal concerns and might be marginally relevant to yours. But whatever their worth, here are my preliminary thoughts on your fascinating project.
The essays collected in your book range widely. Written over nearly a decade, they show a subtle development and reflect your changing attitude toward postmodernism. The last two essays suggest that you might have articulated a few earlier points differently were you to revisit the same terrain. Most of your insights will hold, however.
"After the Future" has a common thread that runs through its disparate chapters – modernity's unsavory ideological proclivities, its predilection for utopian thinking, and a temporal bias that elevates future over past and present. Continuing postmodernist themes, you zero in on modernity's distempers and discontents. With relish and tact, you cut down to size grand narrative, abandon the formal logical quest for identity, and celebrate the difference in all its effervescent richness.
What gives your treatment a new theoretical twist is the ingenuous manner in which you bring postmodernist insights to bear on the Russian canvas. Russia, you argue, is a paradigmatic case of a country that has entered the postmodern age. Its odd features comprise a perfect postmodern pastiche. In fact, Russia has been postmodern way before its time. From St. Vladimir through Peter the Great to Lenin and Gorbachev, Russian rulers have been building Potemkin portable villages and trying to pass them for reality. Russia is a veritable simulacrum, a floating signifier with no clear referent, a copy masquerading as reality. Baudrillard himself could not have found a better model of postmodern simulative society. The case in point is the city of St. Petersburg that "was composed entirely of fabrications, designs, ravings, and visions" (p. 192). The postmodern seeds planted into the Russian soil throughout history fully blossomed during the Soviet era that effectively severed the bond between the signifier and the signified. Under the communists, "[r]eality itself disappeared," "[a]ll social and private life was subordinated to ideology," "symbols themselves constitute the only genuine reality that survives," "[i]n the case of Soviet society, reality itself was made to coincide with those ideas by which it was described" (pp. 190-196).
"This civilization, composed entirely of names," you go on to show, "reveals its nature in postmodern Russian art," which sprang to life in communist Russia. (p. 192). Soviet art manifests its postmodern blueprint in several key features. Socialist realists (1) fed hyperreal fictions to millions of Soviet citizens who mistook them for reality; (2) shredded to pieces high modernism; (3) transformed Marxism into a pastiche of conflicting philosophical doctrines; (4) combined incommensurate aesthetic styles; (5) endorsed a "quotation" method that effectively dispensed with authorship; (6) erased the opposition between mass and elite culture; and finally, (7) created a posthistorical space where all the past discourses and narratives were to reconcile (pp. 206-207).
If socialist realism tinkered with postmodernist aesthetics in its formative stage, conceptualism serves as its latter day incarnation. Thus, Komar and Melamid's sots art parody socialist realism's pompous, sumptuous style, driving its ideological message to the logical extreme (p. 207). Ilya Kabakov, Dmitri Prigov, Lev Rubinstein, and Timur Kibirov, you write, belong to a generation which "feels a sort of nostalgia precisely for the typical Soviet-style and the art of socialist realism, which provide them with congenial ideological material for the conceptual work. Socialist realism is close to conceptualism in its antimodernist stance: both forms share highly conventional semiotic devices, sets of clichés and idioms that are devoid of any personal emphasis or intentional self-expression" (p. 207). More specifically, conceptualists shun emotions, personal commitment, subjectivity, selfhood, and authorship, and, as befits postmodernists, mock political narrative of every kind.
Socialist realism interrupted the natural development of modernist avant-garde in Russia. While in the West modernism survived well into the 60's, it had been cut short by the revolution in Russia. Which is why, you point out, "a single postmodernism [exists] in the West, while two separate postmodernisms arose in Russian culture. . . . The first postmodernism is explicitly heroic; while the second is implicitly ironic. Nevertheless, if we identify them as two aspects and two periods of one historical phenomenon, these opposing tendencies quickly neutralize each other, constituting an utterly 'blank pastiche,' to use Frederick Jamison's term. The tendency to perceive socialist realism and conceptualism as mutually s(t)imulating aspects of one and the same cultural paradigm," you conclude, "will undoubtedly find further support in the course of future reinterpretations of Soviet history as a whole" (p. 210).
Such, in very rough outlines, is the gist of your thesis. I find your argument plausible and your perspective fruitful. It affords fresh insights into Russian history, which is reason enough to pursue this line of inquiry. But I also spy alternative theoretical horizons your interpretive gaze overlooks. Moreover, I feel that the theoretical whole you erect is less than the sum of its parts. That is to say, your particular insights into Russian culture enlighten and delight apart from, if not in spite of, the overarching postmodernist framework in which they are etched.
Of the seven features establishing socialist realism's postmodernist bona fide, some are more compelling than others. You might be stretching the argument a bit when you talk about socialist realism as the "erasure of specifically Marxist discourse that then degenerates into many ideologies and philosophies" (p. 206-207). There is enough ambiguity and contradiction in Marx's teachings to invite conflicting interpretations, which abound in the Marxist discourse. The Soviets appropriated from it what they wished, perhaps debased it, but I would not say they "erased" Marxist discourse.
I don't see socialist realists particularly wedded to "citations" and "quotation marks," nor do I think that they dispensed with the claims of "authorship." Official Soviet artists stalked their claims ferociously and guarded their personal reputation zealously. The "hyperauthorship" (p. 207), it seems to me, was more common in philosophy and the social sciences than in Soviet literature and art. Your statement that socialist realists create a "hyperreality that . . . consists of ideas that become reality for millions of people" (p. 206) makes sense, but it is prone to misunderstanding. Millions of Soviet people contended with everyday reality that was nothing like what it was portrayed in the literature, and they learned to navigate in it quite well. While some confused the slogans with reality, many more did not.
Whatever postmodernism and socialist realism share, we should not overlook areas where the two parted company. I am not just talking about irony and playfulness (though these are paradigmatic features in their own right). Socialist realists frowned on high modernism in aesthetics, but they endorsed it wholeheartedly in the political, social, and economic domains. Socialist realism hailed scientific rationalism, technological growth, plundering of nature, bureaucratic control, political hierarchy, utopian vision, militant partisanship, and such like. These are quintessentially modernist sensibilities which postmodernists, including conceptualists, seek to relegate to the dust bin of history. Max Weber's theory of the iron cage that the Western panrationalism forged for itself fits the Soviet modernity even better than the Occidental one. You generally gloss over these modernist snippets scattered through Soviet literary texts. Actually, it might help your cause if you tackle head on these anomalies ill fitting the postmodernist paradigm rather than wait for critics to bring them up.
Whether or not Russian postmodernism and socialist realism are woven from the same cloth, I agree that conceptualists have fully imbibed the postmodernist spirit. I cannot think of any other artistic current, East or West, that would have more rightfully earned the label "postmodernist." Your treatment is sensitive, compelling, moving. "Conceptualism drapes negation in the tattered rags of mediocrity and senselessness, showing its own negation of itself. Such is the difference between satanic laughter, which destroys belief, and the laughter of the holy fool, as he unmasks the idol" (p. 65). You don't dwell much on the parallel between the medieval phenomenon of holy foolery and the conceptualist ethics, however. This is probably in part because you already deployed this elegant trop in your analysis of the modernist avant-garde, which the postmodernist "arriere-garde" strains to overcome. There may be another reason why you apply the term sparingly to Russian conceptualists. The crypto-religious fervor you discern in modernists is palpable in their anger, earnestness, and high-mindedness lurking beneath all their shenanigans. By contrast, the conceptualist iconoclasm evinces a different ethos – it pokes fun at seriousness itself and openly denigrates the conventional art's self-importance and salvational pretenses. Prigov states that his works "represent the deconstruction of art as religion. I deconstruct the belief that art is a religion" (in Baigell and Baigell, eds., Soviet dissident Artists, p. 225).
If the modern avant-garde artist is akin to a medieval holy fool, iurodivyi, then the postmodern arriere-garde conceptualist reminds me of a folksy jester from the same era – skomorokh. The difference between the two is telling: the former seeks to walk in the path of Christ and suspects devil's trickery in all mundane beauty, the latter is too much of a skeptic to walk in anybody's path (except in the path of his own linguistic shadow) and is inclined to dismiss beauty as something residing in the star-struck eyes of the beholder. The holy fool wants to reform this world, the jester seeks to expose its phoniness. The holy fool's outrages have a constructive purpose, the jester's irreverent gestures are strictly deconstructive. The jester's craft pokes fun not only at the official realities but also at the unofficial ones, including one's identity, seen as a linguistic artifact rather than a substantive self. This is not so much "holy foolery" as "tomfoolery." Still, holy fool and jester are kindred spirits. Both, you boldly state, offer healing and consolation. Conceptualism is a spiritual phenomenon modeled after the apophatic theology, which affirms the unknown and unknowable absolute by refusing to name it. Thus, conceptualists are feeling their way to the unfathomable, droning and muttering in a zen-like stupor, slowly moving toward total silence.
And yet, the "liberation from speech" (p. 35) you admire in conceptualist artists strikes me as a bad omen. Why is this that conceptualists never manage to shut up? "What you cannot express in language, you should remain silent about," Wittgenstein taught us, and one couldn't help wondering why postmodernists fail to heed this wisdom. Instead, they keep cataloguing old ideological clichés, fingering them absent-mindedly like some worry bids, saying the same thing again, and again, and again. I do think that conceptualists are telling us more than they care to express and more than we care to hear. This is not just some tongue-tied drivel emanating from awestruck pilgrims overwhelmed in the presence of the absolute they can witness but never name. I hear a clearly audible voice beyond the conceptualist discourse – a muffled cry, really. Outwardly, conceptualists resemble talking heads whose feelings have atrophied, but they have never completely liberated themselves from their bodies, from the anger they so often felt in the Soviet netherworld. I see their language gamesmanship and ironic demeanor as a classic sign of a psyche that was abused but is unable to come to grips with the unmentionable horrors it had to endure. Theirs is not so much a copout as a cover-up. What Soviet conceptualists futilely try to "erase" from their memories is the nondiscursive, visceral experience of being laughed at, stigmatized, spiritually annihilated in so very many ways. Even if some conceptualists did not go personally through the ritual degradation ceremonies, they surely witnessed others being dragged through the mud, tarred and feathered by the shock troopers from a local Komsomol outlet (which is in some ways more debilitating than being a star performer in your own show trial). Conceptualists remind me of survivors in a concentration camp, staring blankly into space, wandering around the empty camp grounds, unable to leave behind the memories that will haunt them for years to come.
I realize that my take on conceptualism might seem patronizing and condescending. Peeping into other peoples' minds and claiming to have discovered there unconscious feelings is too often a frivolous, unseemly game. It probably tells us more about the analyst than about the analysand. One could counter my intuition by pointing out that Russian postmodernists have always been a scrappy bunch. Armed with irony and sarcasm, they have learned to manipulate their environment expertly. Prigov may revel in tomfoolery but he is no fool. Moreover, he is a man of courage. During the Soviet era, his and his buddies' irony was a breath of fresh air in a country where there was little air left to breathe and where few had guts to face down the emperor who wore no clothes. But now that the Soviet Union has collapsed, the same gesture seems hallow. Today, the pathos of irony has a self-destructive edge to it, as conceptualists insist on wearing the same tattered rags, reliving ideological battles of the past, and bearing witness to the emptiness Soviet society left behind. But unbeknownst to themselves, conceptualists have become an exhibit number one in their testimony.
Like a weathervane that dutifully follows the wind's direction and serves as its faithful index, conceptualists feel the bygone era's violent winds, which weathered their bodies and dried up their souls. Like a dumb idol forced to partake in a pagan ritual through its very iconicity, conceptualists show more than a fleeting family resemblance to idols and idolatry they mock. Like a jester who feigns it doesn't hurt at all when somebody slaps him in the face, conceptualists escape into irony to cover up the stinging pain from a ghastly spectacle in which they were symbolically implicated. Their faces are contorted in a grimace signifying disengagement, but their expressions are iconic as much as they are ironic. It is this bio-social semiotic of postmodernist aesthetics in general and Russian conceptualism in particular that interests me greatly. Icon, index, symbol – these are the three basic sign forms. Postmodernists come conceptualists work closely with all three, but they pretend that their icons and indexes are mere "linguistic symbols," whose own body is supposed to be indifferent to the events they signify. Yet, they hardly escape the culture's inexorable iconicity and indexicality. The conceptualist simulating gesture has an unmistakably dissimulating ring to it. The joke may be on the joker, after all.
Baudrillard's notion of "simulacrum" needs to be complemented by another one – "dissimulacrum." If simulacrum is a copy masquerading as reality, then dissimulacrum is reality masquerading as fiction. A simulator pretends that something is there when it is not. A dissimulator pretends that there is nothing when there is something. The former wishes to pass his mask for a face, the latter is trying to convince us that his is "really" a mask. One is busy imitating enthusiasm, constructive activity, and meaningful social routines, the other rushes to disassemble or dissemble them even before they are brought into being. One fakes total presence, the other feigns total absence. In short, the two are twins; theirs is a siblings' rivalry; one can hardly do its job without the other, as they continue to pretend that they pretend or that they don't. Culture does not so much lose its body in these exercises as it whittles down its emotionally-laden substance and masks its all too real deformities. The postmodernist escape from soma into the playfully linguisticized discourse strikes me as a symptom. Of what?
The postmodern ironists' dis-ease with their own materiality indicates a spirit that has grown weary of its gravity-bound incarnations. Russian conceptualists are particularly at home in this strenuous self-denial, their attitude fed by centuries of neglect and denigration that body had been exposed to in Russian culture. I see this attitude in early Russian monks who mortified their flesh and preached silence as the highest form of devotion. It is evident in Vladimir Soloviev and Nikolai Fedorov with their quest for degendered existence and purely spiritual love. Its traces could be found in Nikolai Berdiaev and Alexander Block who experimented with the idea of sexless marriage, mixed with khlysty, and evinced profound ambivalence about human flesh. The Russian dis-ease with the body and its mundane functions is nowhere more evident than in the Russian sectarian movement. Its members' self-flagellational vigils were designed to elevate spiritual culture over its profane embodiments, but there was enough room for doubt left as to whether the secret pleasures the participants experienced in the process were entirely spiritual. Theology and art seem to work here hand-in-hand, disembodying culture, sublimating it into a symbolic apparitions, castigating the body as an unsavory vessel for the sacred soul. Or as you put it yourself so eloquently, "it is reality, brimming with health, full and round to the eye, that would rather serve the demonic seduction of humanity, turning it toward the earthly path and away from the celestial" (p. 58). The critique you offer toward the end of your book shows your more nuanced attitude toward postmodernism and conceptualism, but I think it needs to go further in thematizing the Russian predilection for cultural disembodiment. The disembodied ideal of culture I detect in Russian conceptualism is matched by the dismembered concept of language, the disemboweled notion of semiotics, and the dissembling blueprint for ethics. All these features are consistent with the postmodernist corpus.
Take, for instance, postmodernist linguistics. It is thoroughly Saussurian in its binary thinking. The signifier is directly linked here with the signified, the sign is explicated through other signs, the meaning is transparent to the interpreter's gaze, and speech is a function of grammatical code enciphered in language. The semiotics that grew from this view has no use for human body, emotions, and voice; it dissolves semeiosis into voiceless discourse that speaks the speaker and signifies the signifier. Humans are always the signified here. They re-produce the linguistic code rather than produce it. Everything that could be said and is worth saying has already been said. We can only mouth the episteme and replicate the hyperreal copy. An original uttering is a theoretical impossibility.
This postmodernist creed contrasts with the semiotics developed by Charles Peirce and his pragmatist followers, who prefer the triadic model to the binary one. The relationship between the signifier and the signified is mediated here by an interpretive act, which completes the natural semeiosis. Our interpretive practices endow the word with meaning and breathe life into the inanimate linguistic machinery. Without the signifying act, the word – language – signifies nothing. It comes to mean something in deed and in situ, when the subject picks from its possible senses the one most needed and takes it to mean something definitive, not for all but very specific practical purposes. According to Peirce, James, Dewey, and Mead, signification is not just a mental act: it could be a feeling, an action, a habit which tests the meaning we assign to things and situations against their obdurate properties and social valences. Linguistic signification grows from prelinguistic, nonsymbolic forms of semeiosis, which humans share with their protosapient ancestors. Our vocal gestures are implicated here – not as surface phenomena akin to droning and muttering but as bio-social events deeply rooted in our body.
Voice, golos, is not just a capacity to golosovat, make empty political utterances. It is vested in the human body, it goes to its emotional core. Unlike discourse, voice exists in real time and space and triggers momentous physiological processes. Activated by our vocal cords and tongue, our voice reverberates with feelings, quivers with emotions, it has a certain diction that usually tells us more than the self-conscious subject seeks to communicate. Even when voice simulates and dissimulates, it has an undeniable presence; it lets us in onto real events which no ironic discourse could camouflage. (I shall note parenthetically that dramaturgical act is always transcendental and transcendental act is always dramatic). Distorted, tortured though Gorbachev's glasnost might have been, it was no mere "voiceness," as you seem to imply (p. 97). It gave hope to many people who were not completely jaded or lulled by decades of ideological droning. The violent shrieks and howls we are hearing ever since are genuine indexes, whose bio-social semiotics bespeaks a repressed culture that is finally baring its emotional wounds.
In this reckoning, it would seem to make more sense to talk about "ideospeech" than "ideolanguage." Not just because Russian ideological tetrads translate so well into other languages, or because shrewd politicians and con-artists have deployed them since Thucydides, though these are weighty portends. The point is rather that doublespeak reveals itself in paralinguistic telltale signs even more vividly than in its lexical and syntactic patterns. I agree with you that ideology is first and foremost about power, but I don't think language is to blame. Ideology engenders a distorted emotional culture of intolerance and hate, which bursts through and makes its hegemonic presence felt in ideospeech acts. It is at this embodied level that debased culture shows to us its true physiognomy. We feel it in our twisted guts, faces contorted into fake smiles, expressions of hate frozen in our eyes, and other emotionally vested value judgments we pass onto the world and ourselves. We can simulate and dissimulate these semiotic indexes, but they are a presence no deconstructive finesse could erase. The recourse to irony does not help the matter. It adds a new cycle to the dissmimulational spiral and helps hide the snarled web of the ironist's motivations. "Irony is almost inevitable where mind is at cross-purpose with the heart," says Georgy Fedotov ( Sudby i Grekhi Rossii, Vol. 2, p. 344). If so, then the conceptualists' ironic vigil hints at a crying gap between their heartfelt emotions audible in their voices and anesthetized minds inscribed in their discourse.
Does conceptualist art imitate life or is it the other way around? I do not know nearly enough about conceptualists' personal habits to have the answer, but I would venture a hypothesis that there is a linkage between their lives and their art, that the conceptualists' ironic detachment from ideological hyperreality spills over into their relationships with flesh and blood people. Conceptualist art, and more broadly postmodernist discourse, engenders a certain ethos: the in-your-face ethics of putdown and insult. When Baudrillard says, "I don't want culture, I spit on it" (Forget Foucault, p. 81), you can clearly sense venom in his voice and visualize an indexical gesture. Conceptualist artists mimic the same gesture, as they settle the old accounts with their tormentors. Conceptualists are not as violently inclined as some radical postmodernists, but I sense a passive-aggressive attitude in their voice which heaps scorn on those who don't see things their way.
Conceptualist art is hyperrepresentational, in that it seeks to convey not things themselves but their ideological essences. Conceptualism sucks into itself bits and pieces of reality, and in the process purifies its objects from humanity they once embodied. So, what is left is a cipher, an ideological code, cartoonish characters set into motion by the omnipotent puppet master. Hence, Kibirov's "Speech by the Comrade Chernenko," where his astringent imagination brings to life the living corpse of the General Secretary addressing a Soviet writers' meeting. Everybody in this clever satire is a nincompoop. There is a slew of well known characters who show up at the scene, decked out with the all too familiar claptrap: Evtushenko, "barely able to hold back his feelings"; Bergolts and Inber, "wailing like common harridans;" Samoilov, "applauding nobly with restraint"; Erenburg, Pasternak, Rozhdestvensky take their turns, dutifully signing their obeisance to the party line; they are followed by Block, Puskin, Lermontov, Dante, and Homer who make a brief appearance to give the happening a phantasmagoric dimension. A few tangible details crop up here and there (Pasternak looks like a "startled child," Rasputin "for a moment forgot about his beloved Lake Baikal"), but these quasi-personal tidbits only underscore the spectacle's studied one-dimensionality. It must be real fun to jerk these straw men and women around, dissolve them in the ideological formalin, burn them in effigies. One longs for a noncomic relief, but none is forthcoming.
While the Soviet Writers' Union was in place, such a spoof had real bite. When the same method of turning people into their linguistic shadows is employed today, it becomes an ideology, an ethical imperative to cut everybody down to size. Lev Rubinstein's extensive catalogue of commonplace utterances that he assembles on index cards and reads in a more or less random fashion implies that people are walking clichés with no emotional substance to their verbalizations. We are all cultural dupes, the writer tells us, eager to consume linguistic garbage and bound to reproduce unreflexively the existing order of things. We feign being alive, for there is no reality behind our spurious yearnings. We simulate with vengeance, all of us, except maybe for conceptualists themselves, who have figured out the charade and managed to escape the common dupery through their ironic overextension of idiomatic commonplaces. I am yet to come across a postmodernist willing to say, "I am a cultural dupe, wired to the media, bent on mindless consumption, and faithfully reproducing hegemonic institutions." Ilya Kabakov comes closest to admitting that much. When Oskar Rabin approached him regarding participation in the famous Bulldozer exhibition of 1974, Kabakov turned him down and allegedly said, "All my life I have crawled on four feet. I stand up on four feet. And you are trying to stand like a normal person on two legs" (Komar and Melamid, in Baigell and Baigell, eds., Soviet Dissident Artists, p. 268). This is a graphic – iconic – description, hinting at the toll Soviet culture exacted from its artists. But even Kabakov couldn't say it in all sincerity; his confession was tongue-in-cheek; his artistry expressed a thoroughly nonconformist spirit. The postmodernists' stance implies that its practitioners are autonomous subjects, endowed with taste, perspective, and critical judgment. Why, then, deny critical agency to others?
Let me say it one more time that conceptualist art was a revelation; its ironic dead-pan humor was enormously refreshing; its verbal and visual dexterity continues to amaze. But the conceptualists' capacity to keep their ironic aloofness begins to wear me down. My eyes glaze over when I see yet another ironist mounting the familiar treadmill and churning out the gruesome visage of the world gone postmodern. I wonder if this art form is near a saturation point, if its practitioners are turning into jokesters who tell the same joke over and over again. There is enough phoniness in this world for conceptualists to go on debunking, but there is more to our lives than meets the conceptualist eye and that the conceptualist gaze tends to occlude, if not repress.
Summoned from his death bed to vote in an election, Chernenko was a pathetic sight indeed. Did any conceptualist notice that he was also a body in pain, feel compassion for this befuddled old man gasping for air? Popular Soviet songs with which conceptualists sprinkle their texts are teeming with bad lyrics, but when ex-Soviet citizens somewhere in Uzbekistan hear on the radio "Landyshi, landyshi," the silly words and pat melody give them something that no conceptualist text does. A tired rock hit coming from the ghetto bluster might be plenty annoying, but it could shake young bodies and fill them with real energy. I think low-brow culture can teach us something about turning a commonplace into art. Postmodernists underestimate the power of cliché to stir genuine emotions and overestimate the power of postmodern pastiche to move us. Love, hope, friendship – such platitudes come alive in every generation, every single day, and will continue to do so thanks to our will to believe and our willingness to keep irony in check.
I should be careful to avoid overgeneralizing. Postmodern art is diverse and it does not lend itself to easy categorization. A good deal of it, I am afraid, is drained of emotional substance and is contemptuous of human predicament. No sooner do postmodern artists conjure something up, as they are shredding it into deconstructed pieces. The moment they evoke human emotion, they kill it with their cheerless irony. Meanwhile, postmodernists do not suffer critics gladly and prefer to deconstruct their own creations (here is the case of an artist and critic rolled into one). The postmodernist performance could be virtuosic. It could also be tiresome, narcissistic, self-indulgent, and more than a tad rude. The same holds true of many postmodern academic texts. Well, lets amend the last statement to read, "The same holds true for certain postmodernist and non-postmodernist academic texts."
If I were to single out one artistic current that runs contrary to conceptualism and fits in with my semiotic sensibilities, it would be acmeism and its offsprings. Mandelshtam, Akhmatova, Pasternak grappled with the same ideologically oversaturated, inane realities as conceptualists did, yet their response was decidedly different. They never lost sight of little things: wet pavement, lonely lampposts, stooped shoulders, pregnant silences, barely perceptible emotional stirrings and miraculous transcendences that people managed to achieve amidst the Soviet mayhem. Acmeists saw to it that the traces of sordid being they waded through wouldn't vanish unnoticed, unrecorded. Nor did they allow people to be effaced by ideas. Acmeists kept their poetic sights trained on irrepressible reality seething about them, geared their antennas to silences brimming with meaning, and refused to either camouflage or surrender to despair. I doubt they would ever confuse St. Petersburg with Disneyland, no matter how phantasmagoric their respective realities.
How often acmeists' selves were shattered into pieces and saw their public and private identities collide? Still, they tried and tried again to put the broken pieces back together into a meaningful whole. Like good pragmatists, acmeists wouldn't mistake formal logic for nature's law but take it as an ethical imperative to match words and deeds and find a common thread in our jarring self-expressions. Their identities were real and good – until further notice, that is, when they had to be patched all over again.
Amidst all their heartaches, acmeists hadn't lost their ability to bear witness to the unforgetfulness of being. They doggedly stalked presence in its manifold hypostases and were not afraid of fantasy and fiction if that helped ferret out this presence. They knew that ideas and imagination partook in reality and used them freely to impart objectivity and meaningfulness to the inchoate world around them. "If only you’d know the garbage from which my verses unashamedly spring," intimated Akhmatova. What she didn't say was how much poetry, so inauspiciously conceived, helped her and her friends to cleanse themselves from the filth.
Standing at the precipice and peeking into the abyss, acmeists did not yield to apocalyptic temptation. Even as their loved ones fell under the Kremlin butcher's knife, they continued to find solace in poetry. They prayed to God, but their feet were firmly planted on the ground, as they attended to their quotidian concerns and shoot everyday troubles. And if the apocalypse came, they wouldn't be reciting the foreboding postmodernist verses and telling everybody, "I told you so." They would rather hold hands and help the dispirited to move along and claim their share of things to come.
As you can see, I exaggerate quite a bit. My paean to acmeism is as biased as my philippics against postmodernism. What I have concocted is an ideal type, a measuring rod fit to judge how far reality strays from it. The reality is invariably messier, stranger, and more exciting than fiction. There are plenty of "acmeisms" scattered over conceptualist texts, as there are emotionally unintelligent mutterings emanating from the acmeist corner. Anyone who reads Mandelstam's Fourth Prose will sense how much anger and violence are packed into it. This emotionally overloaded writing is more to my liking than bloodless conceptualist abstractions. There is a real voice here, irony that does not drown the sentiment and deafens the voice. I train my vocal cords on this emotional tuner. You might sense in my diction certain anger and stridency. I know I do. But I strive to practice emotional intelligence and keep my self-righteous proclivities in check, calling on self-irony and dialogue whenever possible.
It is awfully presumptuous for me to say that I sense similar emotional moorings in your writing, but I really do. There are differences, no doubt, but when I read your ode to mundane things, Misha, I hear the acmeistic diction in your essayistic poetry. Your chapter on the lyrical museum is a hymn to this-worldly, nondeconstructive engagement with things – things in themselves and things for us. Your diction, for all its postmodern playfulness, is never frivolous or self-indulgent. I'd dare say it reminds me of Chekhov's: "My sacred creed is the human body, health, wit, talent, inspiration, love, and absolute freedom, the freedom from violence and lies, whichever form the latter might take" (Chekhov to A. F. Marks, February 25, 1899). Sounds very uncool to our postmodern ears, but so what. Our age is supposed to be multivocal and polistylistic. If it is broad enough to include Gandlevsky's "critical sentimentalism," it should accommodate Chekhov's fleshy, emboweled, emotionally-charged spirituality (and I should add, early Bakhtin's paeans to the Gargantuan body of low culture in all its profane materiality).
If I were to take issue with your proposal, it would be with the general setting in which you invite us to reclaim things' prophetic messages. Museum is the place where we put objects on the stands, supply them with proper captions, and file quietly past the displays at a respectful distance incumbent on spectators. An American style "children's museum" where you are encouraged to handle every item on view would be more appropriate here. Still, I see a problem with your metaphor. Much as I share your sentiment, I feel that your approach evinces a certain hesitation about embodied culture. Where are the humans who interact with these mundane objects? Their meaning is inseparable from the stories in which they were once enmeshed. Every thing on display encapsulates a mortal being who once owned, cherished, witnessed, used or abused it. Real people narrating their own lives are conspicuous for their absence in your proposal, yet meeting these people and partaking in their lives – symbolically and nonsymbolically – should be among the key reasons behind the collection. Which means that museum may not be the best gathering place for such interactions. True, things are more than an excuse for meeting their owners, but then people are more that the sum total of their belongings. Let them all mingle together and enhance their sense of being alive.
A somewhat different metaphor conveys my intuition about the Never-Never Land where emotions are intelligent and intellect is emotionally sane. Picture the Fifth Councilor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, walking side by side with another person draped in tattered rags, the two slowly making their way down the beam that stretches from earth to moon. Both have left behind their stale roles and now face each other not as masks but as human beings fully opened to otherness, capable to take the role of any living or dead creature. Unconstrained by power plays and liberated from ideolanguage, they are making sense together in a transpoetic proto-space conjured up by Bulgakov in his immortal novel. Language and grammatology have yielded the center stage to speech and interaction. Words are extricated from quotation marks and once again resound with personal significance. Here is a transcultural image that pushes a notch the vision you articulated in your lyrical museum proposal. When we can avail ourselves to such an unforced, fully voiced, aesthetically embodied dialogue, we will have come closer to realizing the transcutlure's potential.
I don't think we shall ever be able to see this ideal fleshed out in this world, brimming with insanity, bigotry, and hatred as it is, except maybe for a few transcendent moments when we manage to heed our universal selves. Meanwhile, we shall need society to nurture our transcultural hopes. "To live within society and be free from society – this is what culture is about," you write. "It enters the blood and bone of society, in order to liberate individuals from the constraints of their social existence, from its repressive tendencies and historical limitations" (p. 288). I think I know what you mean, but shouldn't we invert the argument and acknowledge that social institutions can help keep at bay overzealous kulturtragers whose warped notions of "authentically Russian," "authentically German," "authentically Serbian," "authentically Hutu," "authentically Tutsi," or whatever culture prevented socially (ethnically, racially, religiously, economically, sexually) alien groups from fully participating in the life of culture and society? Your transcultural vision is inimical to such cultural imperialism, but you need society to give your vision a real chance. My bias as a sociologist probably shines through here (though my academic affiliation is a pure happenstance), but why is society always a bad guy, and is it true that culture can do no wrong? Society can limit or facilitate cultural creativity, just as culture can encourage or hobble sociological imagination. The same goes for art, science, religion and other life forms. They all should find their proper place in the transcultural (Dewey called it transactional) project you undertake. Which brings me to my last point.
There is a certain hidden agenda in this long epistle, I realize. It has something to do with the fact that I was cut off from Russian culture and art for over twenty years. I never wrote a rhymed line in Russian, and it was not until about two years ago that I felt compelled to express myself through artistic media. Something happened and I started writing songs and lyrics. As I read your penetrating discussion of Russian poetry, I couldn't help wondering if my own verses (see a sample enclosed) have any pedigree in the culture where I grew up. Contemporary poetry gave few clues. Gandlevsky's "live-conversational," "middle style" and a gentler irony appeal to me, but there is not much in it either that I could see echoed in my writing. Acmeism was another possibility I entertained, until I found a passing reference in your writing to the low culture of "contemporary urban folklore" (p. 29) which gave me a better idea of where my artistic roots derive from. What I am doing is not poetry. My verse is nothing like what is published these days in this country's poetry journals, where meter is a bad form, rhyme is an ultimate in bad taste, and comprehensibility is a sure sign that the writer went somewhere seriously astray. Mine is urban folklore with a cerebral twist and a penchant for patterning and chanting.
Why am I bringing it up? Because I think low culture deserves better than the short shrift you gave it in your book. Did you read John Dewey's Art as Experience or a postmodern update on it by Richard Shusterman, Pragmatist Aesthetics? I think you could check these books with profit. The main thesis here is that art is experience and experience is artful, creative, transformative. We are at our best – ethically, spiritually, physically – when we turn our lives into art. T. S. Elliot, rock music, and the rap scene are given here equal citizen rights in our pastmodern world. Rather than denigrating the low-brow art because it is not as rich in intertextual allusions as its high-brow counterpart, we might try to understand what each can do to bring about a saner world. While one achieves its potential in a culture lab, the other belongs to the street. I hope you will turn your discerning eye to this subject one day.
I have to stop here. Please understand, I write to clarify things for myself as much as to join issues with you. So, some of what I have to say might be irrelevant to you. Thanks for the chance you gave me to think these matters over. Hope to talk to you in Boston on some of these subjects.
April 16, 27-28, 1997
I started this letter a couple of weeks back, as soon as I worked my way through your hefty bundle, but things kept getting in my way. So, it is only now that I can finish this note.
I read your books and articles on Russian postmodernism, as well as related pieces penned by different authors. I have a much better feel for your project, whose depth, scope and inventiveness continues to amaze me. I am excited by the prospects of having your chapter on religious themes in Russian artistic culture. I see it opening up with apophatic theology and early Eastern Orthodox tradition, moving through the Russian iconography and early art to the Silver Age with its misgivings about human body, then onto the Russian avant-garde, socialist realism, sotsart, conceptualism and beyond. I think it might turn out to be the lead article for the entire collection. To be sure, a 40-50 page manuscript is too short to do justice to your subject, but it should convey to broad audiences your project's scope and potential.
I was jotting down notes as I waded through your works, thinking of where I could join and/or take issue with you. I don't want to pester you with another lenghty epistle and use your work as a foder to articulate my own agenda. Besides, my current reading cycle has lasted too long. It's time for me to get back into a writing mode and make good on the earlier commitments. So, here are some preliminary reflections occasioned by your project, with a more extended discussion to follow (I hope).
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You make an ample and thoroughly convincing case for apophatic theology as a paradigm for Russian spirituality (ideology, art, politics). Much clearer to me, also, is "silence" as a key piece in your conceptual tool kit. According to the apophatic logic (some might say illogic), the divine spirit can never be captured through language and devotional practices. Institutional religion with its ritualism and self-conscious piety couldn't help but lead us away from the unnameable otherness of the divine. Hence, the suspicion about the authorities, languages, arts – all incarnated spirituality that threatens to spoil the original word with the foul breath of the sinful flesh. "Once uttered, every thought's a lie."
In this reckoning, Russian holy foolery, nihilism, atheism, conceptualism and postmodernism transpire as historical phenomena growing from a common root. One conjures up the defiant stance Russian maximalists take against the corruption that the divine spirit suffers when someone tries to capture it in craven images, be these visual or literary, religious or political. Only by retiring deep inside, dedicating ourselves to silence, foregoing any effort to express the inexpressible, or resorting to a deliberately inarticulate, nonpious, even offensive and atheistic expression can we hope to jolt ourselves from our unreflexive slumber and do justice to the divine presence in our midst.
Russian conceptualism is apophatism in its latest incarnation. The conceptualist diction is deliberately inarticulate, its art forms are expressly formless, its message is elaborately obscured. Droning and muttering, foreswearing any claim to originality, playing with clichés and eschewing any stance, profaning the sacred and sacralizing the profane – these are key elements in conceptualist aesthetics. As an art form, conceptualism is an important cultural/aesthetic phenomenon that can, indeed, be seen as a round-about path to the sacred in the age of the profane. But it is also a life form that took shape at a certain point in Russian history. One can frame conceptualism as a coping mechanism, a reaction to the society that was exceedingly unkind to people gifted with voice, imagination, and aesthetic sensibilities. It is a cry of a psyche that has been systematically abused. Having witnessed unimaginable horrors, it took flight from its debased self, resorting to apophatic negation, holy foolery, ironic detachment, and similar devices designed to salvage what is left of our dignity and selfhood. The results have been mixed.
Not every holy fool in Russia has gone as far as Ivan the Terrible to relieve his trauma, but many have left the long trail of bitterness in their wake. There is an unholy side to Russian holy foolery. Even such amicable holy fools as Venichka Erofeev managed to ladle oodles of pain to themselves and to others. You have done an admirable job unveiling the myth-in-the making surrounding Venichka, although you might not be immune to it yourself. Delicate Venichka, the man who never broke wind, who could drink and drink without getting drunk, who tried to walk in the path of Christ his whole life is a powerful literary prop. Alas, it bears only vague resemblance to real Venedict Erofeev, the man and the author.
Remember how the historical Erofeev casually stuck his finger into his Professor's belly button and dismissed with a derisive remark the old man's plea to show up for an exam? Nothing humble about this indexical expression. The flesh and blood Venichka was known to disappear with money gathered by his buddies for a collective drinking feast. He used to bolt from his family without apparent reason, leaving his wife and children to fend for themselves for months on end. His much-touted ability to drink without getting drunk seems to have deserted him at the end, as more and more often he found his intoxicated self enmeshed in ugly squabbles. And what about his irresistible urge to tickle Mother Theresa? True, this is a figure of artistic speech, which should not be taken too seriously. And yet, and yet! Whatever higher purpose it might have served in the apophatic moral calculus, I fear that Venichka's not so holy foolery spelled real pain for real people.
Your account of Velikaia Sov is moving and penetrating. It is particularly sensitive to the passive, masochistic side of people inhabiting that land. However, it tends to gloss over this folk's other, more violent and sadistic side. In my experience, these are the two sides of the same coin. It is this latter facet of Russian holy foolery that I couldn't bear and had to flee. When the Russian holy fool discovers that the world around us falls short of an ideal, he rails against God and mundane authorities, but the brunt of his anger is visited on those who love him the most.
Silence, negation, self-denial, ironic detachment, holy foolery – your concepts highlight the religious and metaphysical roots of Russian apophatism. I wish to highlight its sociological dimension. Notice that Soviet era holy fools rarely inveigh against the system. Some openly profess their love for the government. The case in point is Venedict Erofeev. Are we to believe this man swearing by the regime that had sent his father to the Gulag, forced his mother to abandon her children, and subjected him to endless humiliations? Was he really not a man of this world? His diaries suggest otherwise. Erofeev had recurrent nightmares about being late for an exam; he liked to show off his new jacket in a shy kind of way; he treated his women with benign contempt; he spent countless hours with the rest of the country listening with baited breath to debates in the Russian Parliament – his sensibilities were remarkably middle class. Made in equal measure of self-pity and self-loathing, his pathos occasioned great art, but his own life, insofar as it was turned into an art form, was a heart-rending failure. I feel the same is true about most conceptualists.
The Russian conceptualists' grandstanding strikes me as a rationalization that draws attention away from their psychic wounds. Apophatic negativism channels personal resentment onto a loftier, metaphysical plane, with deconstructive irony performing a kind of phenomenological epoché. The difference is that Husserl's phenomenological reduction aimed at delivering us to things themselves, while postmodernist reduction leaves us with ideologically-tinged cultural intenionalities draping naked nothingness. This apophatic strategy ennobles the conceptualist project as much as it obscures the trauma underneath. The situation brings to mind a recent controversy about the origins of psychoanalysis. Early on, as you might know, Freud encountered children who told him about their sexual encounters with their parents, relatives, and adults. For a while, Freud entertained the thought that these accounts had a basis in reality, then discounted such a possibility and ruled the stories to be children's fantasies. The Oedipus and Electra complexes, the theory of libido, and other psychoanalytic trappings moved to the foreground. This metamorphosis has proved productive, certainly as a literary if not scientific current. Today's consensus is that children's stories were basically true. Had Freud given more credence to children's testimony, psychoanalysis might have taken a different form.
Your apophatic perspective on Russian nihilism and postmodernism is equally illuminating. It certainly has engendered a fruitful line of humanistic research. Still, it doesn't preclude more mundane explanations that treat Russian silence alternating with Russian vociferousness as a historical neurosis, whose etiology could be cast in more prosaic terms. As long as we approach the matter as philosophers, historians, and art critics, it doesn't matter much. But if we are to deal practically with the apophatism's negative side, we need to address Russian culture in its embodied forms and try to understand its emotional discontents and spiritual distempers. And yes, do what we can to raise emotional intelligence in that corner of the world.
It might be presumptuous on my part to believe that such a task should be undertaken, let alone could succeed. Perhaps apophatic warriors are right and we need to lose our souls to save them. But then it might not be such a preposterous idea after all. Why not survey our own psyche from this angle and see how one could break the vicious cycle of emotional cruelty and spiritual violence that is passed on from one generation to another – in Russia and elsewhere?
Your own writings broadly hint at such a possibility. Jakov Abramov, who reminds me of several characters I know, breathes sanity that must have left its mark on his students. His healing powers probably have less to do with his ingenuous philosophy than with his demeanor. His teaching rather than his teachings is what attracts. I don't hold much stock in a philosophy that attributes wisdom to language. The latter couldn't lead us out of the woods, no matter how carefully we listen to it. In my biased view, the Sov residents hold language and theory in much too high esteem, attributing to both dignity that rightfully belongs to speakers and actors. Language doesn't speak the speaker, as many a luminaries from Heidegger to Lacan have told us. It brings us to a fork on the road, presents us with choices, and lets the speaker follow the trail. Sometimes we have to trek through the wilderness and invent along the way new linguistic beacons, chart out our own map of the territory. Language is certainly no substitute for imagination and creativity in those who speak it. As soon as children master language, they begin to experiment with their own terms, invent unheard of ways to communicate their unique experiences. The same goes for adults, who subvert old usages at every turn and stamp their marks on the linguistic terrain they inhabit. The key here is experience, embodied intelligence, or better still – active faith. Faith is not a state of mind, but a will to practice what you preach. It is the courage to act on the premise that God and higher values exist, all the evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. Faith reveals itself not in creedal statements and endless debates of which Sovichi are so fond but in habits and routines. I don't know what the Russian nihilist lamenting the teardrop of an innocent child has in mind. If I watch him desert his own children, heap cruelty on loved ones, and drink himself into oblivion, I have a much better idea what he stands for. If he takes time to wipe off the child's face, gives a helping hand to a friend in need, and sticks around when the going gets tough – then his nihilism means something different. This is not an either or proposition; self is a quantum reality that can appear under one guise and then on a moment's notice don an entirely different mask. Which is why pragmatists insist on judging meaning in actu and in situ rather than in nuce and in theoria.
Kant was right when he pointed to the gap between pure reason and practical judgment: people who make brilliant theorists often are lousy practitioners. Wisdom is a faculty of judgment. It is a willingness to lay yourself open to the ethically muddled cross currents and find your way in the maize of practical circumstances, relying in the process less on pure knowledge than on moral instincts and emotional imagination – all the forms of embodied intelligence that I find sometimes so sorely missing in myself and my countrymen. I certainly wouldn't cast Americans as paragons of emotional intelligence, but I do find the emotional climate around here more hospitable to sane existence. As for the folks back home, I see some promising portends in the land of Sov.
Kibirov's latter poetry offers a clue. He always was something of an odd ball among conceptualists, showing a willingness to sign emotions which canonical conceptualism frowned upon. To be sure, there was plenty of jesting, travestying, ironizing in his work. He would posit a self and then refuse to identify with it, hinting that he was something else than he appeared to be. Now, in his postconceptualist/transconceptualist stage, Kibirov openly brackets irony. He lets us know that his tears aren't fake. Beneath all the masks he used to don we glean a face, a true self unashamed of what it feels. One senses an irreducible presence here, punctuated by fear and joy, shame and elation, embarrassment and hope. "Be a man, dear Lev Semenych – Don't shy away from tears." Moreover, in his recent interviews, Kibirov openly disclaims irony as a tired gesture and promotes "sincerity" as befitting his new poetic stance – not "new sincerity" but "entirely old sincerity," he insists. Interestingly, he inveighs against the aggressive holy fools he encountered in his travels through Russia, the characters he has come to detest. We don't have to take Kibirov's words literally; there is plenty of clowning and a touch of rudeness left in his diction, which hint at deconstructive roots of his transirony. However, one can see here a definite movement away from unadulterated steb to ethical judgment, even moralism, and a craving for an identity.
What Kibirov's example suggests is that one cannot escape oneself. Even when we ironically distance ourselves from our assumed guises, we remain faithful to ourselves in spite of our ironic demeanor. We cannot silence voice and turn off emotion at will. The two occupy a special place on the borderline between nature and culture, that most interesting region where spirit and matter merge. Indexical and iconic, emotions point to a self-in-the-making. The same goes for the human voice. As an ultimate signifying medium, voice contrives to draw attention away from itself to something out there. Yet, voice is never completely transparent to meaning. Here is a medium that is always a message. Voice couldn't help mean more than it intends to mean. It is more naked than the naked body – it is a naked spirit we can behold by our senses. Its embodied spirituality has an unmistakable presence and imperishable substance that could not be wished away by any deconstructive technique.
I sense similar dynamics in your writings. You have mastered the art of non-identity – irony – as well as any other postmodernist. Thus, you playfully introduce an unknown writer whose poetry you bring to readers, or publish notes of a little-known teacher whose views deserve serious attention, or lend your formidable narrative skills to sectarians anxious to have their story heard. Now and then one begins to wonder who hides behind the texts bearing the signature of "Mikhail Epstein." For all your disguises, you remain equal to yourself. You leave your own indelible stamp on the narrative, even when you put it into quotation marks. This is most evident in the syntactic, semantic, and stylistic unity of the lines you attribute to others in your polyphonic essays on new sectarianism. All your protagonists ultimately speak in the same voice. Their diction is unmistakably yours. It is unlike anything I have encountered among present-day postmodernists. Unhurried, pensive, caring – your voice transcends the substance of what you say and speaks to me louder than some of the patent postmodernist verities it enunciates.
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Enough! I didn't want to write you another long epistle, but I apparently did. Thanks again for the generous package you sent me. I owe you for that. The materials I read helped me better understand my own discursive vocalization.