Dmitri Shalin's Letter to Alexander Genis on Russian Conceptualism

December 3-8, 1996



It was good to see you in Boston, banter at the dinner table, and design the Silence Lab for the next AAASS convention. Throughout the meetings, I couldn't help thinking there was something else I wanted to talk to you about. Somehow things kept getting in the way. It wasn't until the day before you left Boston, at our round table, that I realized what it was. Now I am savoring your literary essays, reading your meditation on the Tower of Babel, and wishing we could join issue in person.

You must have felt more than a bit awkward delivering your talk in Russian when everyone else spoke English. Never mind that half the audience was Russian. I know people like you who have stayed true to their native language. The reasons are obvious: your prime audience is in Russia, your writing is literature in and of itself, and you don't want to lose your native speaker's sensibilities while mastering a foreign language. Still, it must be painful. Surely, there are people in the English-speaking world who could learn from you a thing or two. Mastering this language would feed your insatiable curiosity about cultural alterity. And aren't we supposed to do as Romans do when we are in Rome?

My early commitment was to speak and write English, in part because I had no choice but to wrestle with this tongue, in part because I was quickly cut off from Russian speakers. It was also a personal choice. I had no reason to believe my writings would find their way back home (I left Russia in 1975). Now after twenty-odd years, I am as "thrilled" at the thought of expressing myself in Russian as you probably are at the prospect of writing in English. There is a difference, of course: for me, it is recalling what I once knew, for you it is learning from scratch.

As I remember it, the most terrifying thing about the whole affair was the lack or the loss of your native linguistic sensibility. You can't be sure whether your uttering makes good sense, let alone has any tom to it. But if you keep whittling away, your true linguistic intuition will out. I have a theory that you cannot surpass your native linguistic sensibilities, but you can learn to be as writerly creative in a new linguistic media as you were in your original one.

Look at Misha Epstein. He may not be a natural in this respect, yet he is on his way. Within four or five years, he will be able to write in English with authority and grace. And so could you, I believe. Your linguistic acumen is immense, Sasha, and this is a good omen for your squaring off with the English language. That is, if you choose to invest in this project. If you need a feedback on your English translations, please keep me in mind. I am still struggling with definite and indefinite articles and can goof big time, but for whatever I am worth, I'd be glad to help.

I told you before how much I admire the way you practice your writer's craft. I have a lot to learn from you in this department. Writing is an ethical endeavor, in that it forces us to master the subject, to subordinate our unruly impulses to a disciplining schedule, to imagine the other for whom we manufacture our written gifts. To be sure, there are less benign rationales for writing, like the need to earn money or the inability to resist the spells of graphomania. Still, without routine writing one could hardly reach that magic take-off point where our worries about the mechanics disappear and imagination soars.

I write little, or to be more charitable to myself, rarely. Perhaps, I wasn't meant to be a writer (I am still struggling to find out what I was meant to be). Writing used to be a more pleasurable exercise some years back. Now it is somewhat of a chore. I'd rather play guitar and rhyme these days than write academic prose, or else, dive behind the wheel and ride through the desert.

There is one side of writing which makes me pause. I am talking about Derrida and his postmodernist minions who champion grammatology and deconstruction. Sometimes I feel that writing for these folks is an excuse from nonwriting, from wrestling with the world out there. Remember Bitov's symmetry teacher, "I always dreamed about one thing: that I stop writing and start living." (I spied this quote in your conversations about new Russian literature). In some ways writing is a surrogate for speech, if not a substitute for living. It expresses our need to tidy things up, to control the way we appear to others, make this inchoate world more bearable. We manage to bring chaos to heel through writing, but we never completely surmount the elements. Derrida knows this well. Writers, he reminds us, don't have a perfect command of their linguistic medium and inadvertently let us peek through the veils into desires animating writerly compulsions. Deconstructive imagination takes full advantage of this fact, driving deconstruction to the brink of innuendo. The case in point is Rousseau whose linguistic props, Derrida claims to have shown, broadly hint at his erotic practices. So, being a writer is a hazardous occupation in our deconstructive age.

Notice, however, that while deconstructionists muse about the linkage between writing and desire, construction and control, the urge to generalize and the will to power, they are reticent about hunger and desires that animate their own writing. Someone has to turn the tables around and deconstruct the deconstructionists. I don't know if I am the right candidate for the job, but I cannot resist the temptation. So, what follows is my (unsolicited) take on the deconstructionist desire and the postmodern hunger.

* * * *

Here is a proposition: Writing is to speech what masturbation is to sex. Both have their rightful place in the scheme of things, but the relationship between the two is problematic. Do sex and masturbation partially overlap, is one a sub-set of the other, what comes first? The answer is far from self-evident. It seems to me that deconstructionists give precedence to solitary writing, while pragmatists privilege interactive speech. This is not to suggest that the former avoid interpersonal sex while the latter shun masturbation. The point is rather methodological, bearing on the difference between the pragmatist and postmodernist hermeneutics.

Hermeneutics is a science, and an art, that examines how we understand things as texts and texts as things. It studies the life of a particular as an instance of a recognized universal and the being of a universal as a cross-section of its apprehended particulars. Pragmatist hermeneutics, as I understand it, examines how we particularize the universal and universalize the particular. It seeks to discern a particular disguised as a universal, a voice struggling to break through worn-out discourse, a personal intonation within canonic oration, a diction that leaves its mark on everything the speaker says, a face you wouldn't confuse with any other even when it pretends to wear a mask, as well as all manners of shareable feelings that shine through obfuscating symbols, theories and languages. Human beings transpire here as signifiers par excellence, as things that can function as their own symbols but that can never be reduced to the sum total of their sign value.

While pragmatists treat human beings as signifiers, their postmodernist counterparts see them chiefly as the signified. Postmodernist hermeneutics subordinate speech to language, talking to writing, experience to paradigm, life to text. The individual comes across here as a mouthpiece for some discourse, as a sign whose meaning is exhausted by a binary relation to other signs. This is not to say that deconstructionists have no voice. Their voice is sometimes intentionally obscured, but it is never mute. Deconstructionists have a diction all their own. When they tell us that language speaks the speaker and voice is forever corrupted by discourse, they speak from an experience that needs to be not so much deconstructed as sympathetically understood.

Whereas postmodernists consider life to be a text, pragmatists see it more like speech or an event that unfolds in a space/time continuum and is marked by emergent metamorphoses. Writing in this sense is a deferred speech. As embodied communication, speech immediately implicates the other who beholds your face, your voice, and your body in the flesh. It is through speech acts that reality is conceived as a meaningful whole (or "landscape" as Bitov would say). Speech acts should not be equated with grammatical code and textbook semantics, however. Contrary to the Heidegger's well-known locution, language doesn't speak the speaker – we make language do its job when we make sense together, subvert familiar usages, invent new labels, discover fresh signifying strategies, and in the process, give birth to meaningful occasions. Language speaks on our behalf. One way to illustrate this point is through folklore.

Take proverbs. It appears that each one carries a meaning which compels us to see the world through its light. But taken together, proverbs (sayings, chants, spells) give you quite a different picture. For every statement that asserts something, there will be at least one that points in a different, sometimes opposite, direction: Sama sebia raba biet kol ne chisto zhnet, yet rabota durakov liubit; Ne imei sto rublei, a imei sto druzei, but druzhba druzhboi, a tabachek vroz; Ne v dengakh shchastie, alas, dengi liubuiu dver otkryvaiut. What do these inconsistencies tell us? I see them as a sign that meaning does not reside in words anymore than it inheres in things themselves. As the above example suggests, language furnishes us with all purpose linguistic frames that mean everything and nothing at the same time, and that to mean something, they have to be appropriated by speakers and deployed in situ and in actu. Words and concepts are but samples of frozen semantic sperm gathered in dictionary tubes, stored away in textbook vaults, and waiting to be fertilized in speech acts. For a conception to occur, there must be speakers lending their voices to impersonal discourses in mundane situations where chosen meanings are acted upon in earnest make-believe.

Postmodernists qua conceptualists fail to imagine that "concept" is more than a purely verbal device – konzept. Concept is a seed of future reality, a semantic chromosome that carries within itself a genetic code waiting to be decoded in speech. Thanks to our concepts, we can "conceive" things as meaningful objects and populate with their namesakes landscapes in our emergent uni-verse, literally "one verse" recited by those who inhabit a given universe. New verses mean new uni-verses. Were it not for embodied speech practices, the luscious landscapes comprising our universe would break apart into randomly scattered objects. Every meaningful event is conceived on location, in a situation implicating the other, where logos can satisfy its prodigious erotic appetites and where idea and matter can penetrate each other, germinating in a definite thing. Once conceived, things don't exist as meaningful objects for all eternity; they have to be reconceived with every human encounter. One thing may turn up as many objects, and one object could be impersonated by many different things. When particulars are brought into being as concrete universals, they have a certain emotional afterglow, a kind of birthmark which distinguishes a thing for us from a thing in itself. This metamorphosis requires a social setting and a live transaction, without which our language games remain sterile.

The endless play of difference we find in deconstructionist texts occasions few extratextual events. One sign begets the other but scarcely any engenders the inhabitable universe. The offsprings that come from deconstructionist texts are typically stillborn, unable to stir our feelings, plunge us into e-motions, move us. Whatever embryo of meaning is conceived in the conceptualist mind is promptly killed by its deconstructive imagination. The latter doesn't like to carry its babies to term, relying on irony as an all-purpose contraceptive device. No sooner does sentiment escapes its rib cage, that conceptualists pluck its feathers and clip its wings with their ironic tweezers. Deconstructive irony is a dissimulating gesture, a dissimulacrum which puts our self into quotation marks to prevent it from being taken seriously and engendering a meaningful reality. It is a functional equivalent of birth control – symbolic rubber wrapped around emotions to make sure no conception will take place.

Notice that Russian conceptualism wasn't always radically deconstructive. It started as an inspired satire on socialist realism and its pompous style – a "nostalgic socialist realism," pioneered, or at least popularized, by Komar and Melamid. Like a grownup stumbling on a wooden horse he rode with zest in childhood, Russian conceptualists look back at their young pioneer neckties and realize in astonishment that they once wore them with pride. Komar and Melamid's childhood is still glowing with warm memories of hot pursuits and boy scout exploits, but this benign sentiment soon gives way to more conflicted emotions. Ambivalence merges with resentment, resentment breeds irritation, irritation shades into contempt and occasions a smirk at any one who might still harbor the feelings once felt by conceptualists, who have finally grown too big for their britches. In developed conceptualist art one finds little humor and plenty of sarcasm aimed at inane rituals and coercive discipline imposed on the not so young pioneers by their stalwart jailers/teachers.

What gives real pathos to conceptualists' irony is their first-hand experience with the communist grand narrative. As all Soviet citizens, Russian conceptualists were forced to put on uniforms and dramatize inane realities as meaningful and sane. We know what it feels like when you lend your face to the cause you loath or look the other way as somebody else's soul is tortured on the racks. That's when irony is summoned to help abort the bastardly reality conceived against our will. But the imbecilic creatures we abort are our offsprings. Every one of us, conceptualists included, could be slapped with a paternity suit, for we did take part in the debased discourse and helped nurture socialist realities. It is therefore a double irony that we witness here: Those very faces that produced hateful reality labored hard to cut it down to size with their ironic gestures. We could be charged in "consorting with an enemy" as well as taken to court for "illegal abortion." As a matter of fact, some especially brave and brazen ironists among us were taken to court for that very crime, known in common parlance as "anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda."

Putting this into semiotic terms, we can say that ironic gesture is always iconic and indexical, that it implicates ironists in the reality they bracket. You can distance yourself from the mask you are wearing, but your own face is sucked into the dramaturgical act. Thus, quotation marks you place around swearing (a racial slur, a blasphemous word) does not prevent some of it from rubbing off on you. Andy Warhol assumes an ironic posture when he says that artists who cannot sell their art are failures, but he means it more than he pretends. He purports to debunk consumerism of late capitalism, but sets up an "artistic factory" which churns out million dollars' worth of commodities that have been sold on capitalist markets. While Woody Allen mocks himself in front of the audience, he manages to transcend his predicament, but the relief he gains is temporary – it lasts while he is performing on stage in front of an audience. He has to keep jesting and parodying himself, lest somebody notices that he only pretends to pretend, that his willfully donned mask of a meshuganah from Brooklyn is really a naked face contorted in self-loathing. Irony helps vent anger and dull the pain, but the relief is short-lived. It is a plague and a therapy at the same time, it is a spectacle which lets us fight pain with laughter, a carnival where you can wear the mask of otherness pretending it is not your real self. Postmodern ironists are bent on turning life into a never-ending carnival where they can don their masks in a never-ending game of dissimulation. But the ploy threatens to fall apart and bury compulsive ironists under its debris. Just as people stricken with leprosy in the medieval times turned their stigma into a mark of a true distinction, deconstructive ironists claim that their stigma is a blessing in disguise. They are postmodern stigmatics who endeavor to bear the cross for all of us but end up being crushed by the burden. (Did you notice that jesters and ironists are sad creatures who are apt to fall into the blackest depression toward the end of their lives?).

The radically deconstructive irony that sprouted in the postmodern age has little resemblance to its romantic predecessor. Ironic detachment ceased to be a defensive strategy designed to protect one's face beneath the official mask and is transformed into an offensive weapon used to clobber over the head anyone who begs to differ. It is no longer self-irony hinting at the self that it is at odds with itself, but a diatribe directed at the lifeworld and the dupes inhabiting it. For all their talk about the other and alterity, postmodernists don't have much respect for the sanctity of the other person's selfhood, which they put down and eviscerate with their ironic stratagems. Deconstructive irony is cheerless, its playfulness is forced, its voice growing hoarser by the minutes as it mounts an all-out assault on meaning and meaningfulness. Sharpened on the anvil of deconstructive irony, conceptualism turns into the art of universal putdown, which leaves an indelible mark on its practitioners. Prigov shows little mercy and takes no prisoners. Kabakov tells us our life is garbage. Sorokin is bent on painting us as living corpses. Rubinstein is convinced that we are walking clichés. This conceptualist art evinces few traces of nostalgia. Early Kibirov has a gentler touch, but even he couldn't resist the temptation of reducing people to their cartoonish shadows. He laments the plight of his protagonists, but his tears are mostly fake.

Today, conceptualism is no longer a mere epater la bourgeoisie. It becomes far more ambitious as conceptualists take on being as such. Unsheathed before our eyes is a metaphysical irony that contrives to unmask the entire universe of meaning as a fraud. Conceptualism casts its jaundiced eye at the world and finds it lacking in any credibility. Every political platform is a lie, postmodernists tell us, every paradigm is a hoax; there is no being, only emptiness and death lurking beneath our phony selves and feigned enthusiasms. Whatever identity we claim to possess is counterfeit. Our hopes, dreams, desires, commitments are pathetic ploys that keep us from looking into the deathly abyss hidden just below the surface. Nothingness, sheer nothingness, beribboned and engraved, is what conceptualists extol in their most fervent prayers and what we are to embrace as the only authentic presence.

If you want a literary allusion, I'd say that postmodernists stand Don Quixote on his head. While the man from La Mancha's fecund imagination populates the world with imaginary entities, postmodernist deconstruction is bent on turning every meaningful occasion into a simulacrum, an existential nonevent. Conceptualists destroy all manners of ideological monsters in a bid to liberate humanity from the tyranny of paradigms. Along the way, they turn parody onto itself, rendering it largely meaningless. For parody feeds on the gap between mask and face, appearance and reality, and it becomes superfluous when this gap disappears, when the only real thing left is parody itself. Constitutive imagination is supplanted with a deconstructive one, grand narrative with the self-effacing narrative, constructive paradigm with the self-deconstructing paradigm, and a self-fulfilling prophecy with a self-negating one – a prophecy that assures its own failure.

The paradigmatic urge to parody every paradigm produces ideological arabesques, political ornaments, moral fugues, and other non- or anti-narrative art forms. Their nonthematic unity precludes any attempt to derive a rationale for action from this absurdist pastiche. If there is any morale to be found here, it is a "plague on both your houses," or better still, nam tataram vse ravno. . . . Conceptualist aesthetics can be amusing or annoying depending on your mood, but it rarely fails to sap ethical substance. Liberalism, conservatism, socialism, capitalism, democracy – this ideological claptrap enslaves the one who takes it seriously. The only sure way to avoid totalitarian simulacrum is to keep constructive imagination at bay and practice deconstructive engagement. So, beware of pathos and embrace irony, shun commitment and mock politics, poke fun and take refuge in the safety of quotation marks, enjoy your solitary play and always, always keep your contraceptive irony unwrapped and ready to use.

* * * *

You probably wonder, Sasha, why I am so worked up by conceptualism and what does it all have to do with your work. Actually, quite a bit. Your treatment of conceptualism is more sympathetic than mine, and you seem to be ready to throw your lot with postmodernists (though your reference group is comprised by people like Podoroga, who pushes deconstructionism into a more embodied direction). However, I do feel some kindred sentiments scattered throughout your publications. I share your respect for the human body and nonverbal modes of being in the world. Your fascination with nonclassical science, Japanese art, Chinese poetry and Zen Buddhism makes perfect sense to me. Your take on hierogliphs as things that dabble as their own signs is fascinating. As I read your pieces, I see in your elegant vignettes my own dim intuitions. Our thoughts are often moving along similar lines (years back I read Carlos Castaneda, the Tao of Physics, Bohm's theories, Prigogyn's works on chaos and penned a hundred-odd page manuscript on nonclassical physics and the quantum theory of self).

This is not to say we see things eye to eye (doesn't the Orient today owe a lot more to Occidental culture than the other way around?). But I always learn from you, even where we disagree. I can say the same thing about postmodernism. It is a seminal movement that shares many insights with pragmatism, which, as you might have gathered, I adopted as my favorite discourse. The two whittle away at the same philosophical sources.

Postmodernists may be tilting at linguistic windmills, but they also furnish an important service in exposing the totalizing and totalitarian propensities inherent in all ideologies, political platforms and paradigms which refuse to acknowledge that they are language games. I agree with postmodernists that modernity has left in its wake its share of utopias, that progress isn't all it was billed to be, that sanctified by science and reason, paradigms for building paradise on earth have led us to hell. It is equally true that our identity has grown threadbare, having been fed to and processed by the voracious symbolic exchange systems. I also concur that irony is an effective hygiene preventing our faces from being completely effaced by masks.

Nor do I want to take anything away from the dignity of writing. The writer is a creature unusually gifted at taking the role of the other and carrying on an imaginary dialogue with one's multiple selves. An act of writing entails imagining things, marshalling the particulars, rearranging the world in your head, moving your hand across the page, caressing the keyboard on your computer, and as such, it is an embodied practice which could be imminently satisfying. (Brodsky used to say that reading/writing make you feel better than living). Moreover, writing is a form of silence in which the seeds of future dialogues germinate – dialogues which might have otherwise been wasted in meaningless exchanges where our voices remain barely audible amidst dominant discourses.

Postmodernists deserve credit for their efforts to cut grand narrative down to size and for teaching us to mistrust overdetermined generalizations and excessive moralizing, I realize, but this is pretty much what James, Dewey, Mead, Schiller, Hook and Rorty have been trying to articulate in their pragmatist metaphysics. The difference is that pragmatists haven't given up hope or spurned ethical commitment. Postmodernism is a kind of cynical pragmatism that has carried some of its insights to the extreme. I have also overextended my metaphor, or if you prefer, have been carried away with it. I thought I could use some deconstructive irreverence to bring postmodernists back to earth and put them in touch with their feelings. Mine is surely a parody, but if it is any good, it will magnify something real and bring a smile to your face.

Postmodernism is still a paradigm, and its narrative as sweeping and totalizing as narrative could be. Any generalization about an alleged class of flesh and blood people is suspect, but postmodernists strike me as people who fear intimacy, are stingy with their emotions and uneasy about their bodies. Their deconstructive irony hints at a psyche that is unhappy with itself, that feels politically incorrect feelings, and that is iconically implicated in the reality it mocks. What conceptualists lack the most, in my biased view, is "the will to believe" (William James). They are unwilling to make the leap of faith. Had they trusted their moral imagination and used their emotional intelligence, they would have witnessed local syntheses, accidental epiphanies and miraculous transcendence that occur every day about them. Instead, they swear by nothingness to run away from pain, fear, hope, love and other unmistakable marks of a true presence and signs of an extratextual selfhood.

I see more evidence of that in your fine conversations on contemporary Russian belle lettres. Sorokin's disgust with human body is sold as a parody on various literary styles, but his deconstructive irony masks something else. "For Sorokin," you write, "man is an ugly life-size doll, a puppet staffed with smelly guts and encased in human skin. . . . There is nothing wrong with torturing this dirty, stinky, disgusting creature." If this is the only form in which Sorokin can tolerate human body, then he is a disturbed man indeed.

Pelevin's style is quite different. His imagination is constructive, as you rightly point out. His absurdism is closer to Zen than to conceptualism. He transcends the conceptualist ironic mode. But I think he is still stunned by his past experience and struggling to lay his memories to rest. If so, he is a long way from home, from recognizing the wisdom of common sense and quotidian existence. Anyway, your analysis peeked my interest and I look forward to reading Pelevin’s books.

I like a lot your take on Venedict Erofeev. His prose is a miracle. It grabs your guts and doesn't let you go. He is certainly no traditional conceptualist, although his self-destructive impulses are in keeping with the venerable literary tradition. "Alcohol for him," as you put it, "is a chance to break through into a different mode of being; an alcoholic stupor – a means to escape to freedom." How true. I can't help thinking about people around him, however, who had to deal with his drinking binges day after day. I am far from certain that when Erofeev got drunk, he always turned into a Venichka.

Your treatment of Dovlatov and Tolstaya is compelling. Both coped with the same socialist realities but found quite different solutions to their predicaments. Tolstaya's tortured characters are survivors of assorted emotional gulags, which their author no doubt knew first hand. Dovlatov seems to have discovered his own way of soaring above the human fray and parlaying his experience into a snappy, seamless, amazingly serene prose. He refused to judge anything and anyone, allowing things and people speak for themselves, but the excerpt from his letter you quote suggests that he didn't follow his maxim when it came to his own self or his family members’ selves.

Sokolov and Bitov seem to form a bridge to the classical literary tradition, updated for our time. I sense a lot of humanity in both men. Bitov is particularly appealing to me, probably in part because he doesn't shun authorial diction and constructive moral imagination. He is tortured all right, but he doesn't try to make a virtue out of necessity or give up hope.

I wish I knew who else you were dealing with in your series (I miss the parts 1, 2, and 4 of the series published in NRS). I also wish I could pick your mind about such literary figures as Gandlevsky and the latter Kibirov. The former has never completely gone postmodern, his "critical sentimentalism" and "middle style" point in a different direction. His willingness to grapple with sentiments is refreshing in today's conceptualist mayhem. His writings are also saturated with down to earth, emotionally packed "acmeisms" rarely found in other conceptualists. Kibirov's Santimenty is another interesting portend. Here is an unlikely spectacle of a card-carrying conceptualist with a lump in his throat he is no longer keen on squashing. As a prodigal son, Kibirov comes back after a long, arduous journey to discover that life back home goes on, that people are enjoying their small blessings he once scorned. This is where irony loses its deconstructive touch and grows romantic again. This is a transirony which builds up multiple realities rather than tears them down. Gandlevsky and Kibirov make one think there is a middle path between pathos and irony, between cheloveketo zvuchit gordo and cheloveketo dushenka, obremenennaia trupom.

I would have loved to see your take on Rozanov, Belyi, Olesha. I think of Rozanov as a Russian proto-postmodernist. Whenever postmodernists talk about dispensing with identity, discarding ethics, and living beyond good and evil, I think of Rozanov’s quip: "I am not such a monster yet to think of morality." This comes from a man who publishes an article defending Dreyfus in one magazine then sends elsewhere an anti-Semitic tract against the same man. Not much identity is to be found here indeed.

Sasha, I want to continue but I really have to stop writing and attend to more mundane business. Sorry for this rambling epistle. Obviously, this is also is a letter to myself.

If you could lead me to your other works that trade on this territory, I would be thankful. References to other people's work on Russian postmodernism that you might send my way will also be appreciated. And if you could copy for me a page or two from Russian postmodernists' manifestos and creedal statements, I would be in your debt. There is virtually nothing on the subject in my university library, and it would take months to order things through an interlibrary loan. I'd be more than happy to pay you for your expenses.

Meanwhile, I send you a note I wrote to Misha Epstein, as you requested. The parts that interest you, on simulacrum, voice and discourse, are marked. Do you mind if I send this letter to Misha? There are a few points in it that bear on his project as well.

With best wishes and hope to see you in Seattle.