Utopia after Utopia

a Yale University research initiative

Political Violence Conference Abstracts

Political Violence and Militant Aesthetics After Socialism


Pavel Arseniev. “Literature of a State of Emergency: Varlam Shalamov vs. ‘All Progressive Humanity'”

Some epistemological contradictions in Shalamov’s testimonies (collected for the most part in his manifestos and notes on literature, but sometimes peeking out of the stories as well) show that his proses need to be examined not on the thematic and formal levels between which thought usually flits, but rather on the level of the pragmatics of the artistic utterance. Shalamov manages to extend the description of extreme experience leading to writing to the state of emergency of the very experience of writing. In this way literature, going outside the bounds of the law of language’s fictive and rhetorical qualities in cases of serious internal or external threat, turns out to be literature of a state of emergency.

The new writing, pointing out both the inadmissible didacticism and the unforgivable remoteness of old literature, seeks not just to present extreme material or suggest extreme stylistic solutions but to establish a certain emergency method of action, a special pragmatics of writing. As a result of this search, “new prose” gets distanced from both the old order of writing and, more generally, the order of writing per se, thus approaching an existential act: “Descriptions are not enough for our times. The new prose is the event itself, the battle and not its description. That is, a document, the author’s direct participation in life events. Prose experienced as document.” Shalamov seems to extend the emergency from the referential to the pragmatic level of his prose.

This paper will investigate pragmatic metaphors used by Shalamov and this very notorious state of emergency of the described circumstances, which make the “emergency conditions” take on the attributes and features of a purely linguistic catastrophe, a rout of/by language itself.

Ilya Budraitskis. “Does War Leave Space for Violence?”

Theoretical debates on violence throughout the past century, from Sorel and Benjamin to Fanon and Arendt, despite all their differences, have separated violence from all political forms related to the redistribution of ruling order. In this sense violence seemed to be not just the “continuation of politics by other means,” but something opposed to any search for  compromises, and aimed to restore justice. This “divine violence” (Walter Benjamin) contained in itself a potential of overcoming violence as such.

Our times, however, bring more and more examples of the “militarization” of people’s movements and revolts: from Syria to Ukraine, revolutions turned rapidly to armed conflicts, and the exact character of violence radically changed. This triumph of military violence, in turn, reflects the deadening identity between the nation and its government, and “civil peace” on all sides of the conflict. How can we rethink the contradiction between war and violence today? Can violence overcome and “criticize” itself?

Keti Chukhrov. “On the Internal Colonization of the Unequal Other”

The paper tries to explore the contradictions of the concept of violence conditioned by its dubious positioning both as oppression and liberation (in works by Sorel, Benjamin, Lucaks, Fanon, Zizek) and articulate the ethics of an act that could function as the counteraction to systemic violence without remaining the act of resentment or mere rage, quite in the vein of the resisting procedure implied in Benjamin’s opaque term “divine violence”. We claim that it is the dimension of the general that conditions the type of violence that Benjamin calls for by this term.

The analysis tries to unravel the concealed elements of suppression not only in the democracy rhetoric of real politics, but even in the discourses and activities of emancipation in art, culture and social work. Despite being exerted on the territory of left leaning political activism such activities often fall into the trap of confining oneself to appropriating the resistant subjectivity of the oppressed while preserving the class gap with the oppressed and hence accomplishing concealed internal colonization of the evicted “Other” –  the unconscious act that afterwards could burst out in various forms of violence.

Jodi Dean. “Militant Collectivity”

This paper rejects individualist accounts of the heroic militant to consider the people as the subject of politics. It focuses on treatments of the crowd in revolutionary
theory, drawing out the subjectifying force of the crowd event.

Dragan Kujundzic. “‘Who Wants to Die Does Not Die’: The Dionysian Harbor of Anya Al’chuk”

This paper proposed a reading of the poetry of Anya Al’chuk recently collected in a volume (Moscow: NLO, 2011), together with her husband Mykhial Ryklin’s book about her suicide, The Dionysian Harbor (Moscow: Logos, 2013) as well as their joint volume based on performance Rama (Moscow: Obscuri viri, 1994). The paper will also refer to Ryklin’s other works pertaining to the political terror, most notably his Terrorologies (1992), The Time of Diagnosis (2003), as well as his Cross, Swastika, Star (2006), the last one about the political trial of Anya Al’chuk and other artists, related to the collective exhibit “Beware, Religion” in the Sakharov Gallery in Moscow in 2003. The paper will reflect on the genealogy of Russian nationalism and Putinism, as well as on the gender, aesthetics, poetic and/as act of suicide, in the time of political terror.

Mark Lipovetsky. “Roman Osminkin’s Practice: Between Sergey Tretyakov and Dmitrii Prigov”

Roman Osminkin as a poet and commentator of his own (and his peers’) work, actively engages with Western theory and early Soviet Marxist aesthetics. With a special esteem he treats Sergey Tretyakov, the LEF theorist and practitioner, the author of the concept of “the literature of the fact” and the thesis about the necessary involvement of literature into the productive life of society. Osminkin adopts these ideas and attempts to adapt them to contemporary cultural condition, although he never mentions negative effects of the LEF theories, which basically had paved the way for Socialist Realist doctrines. However, in his further interpretations, using theories of Jacques Rancière and Gilles Deleuze, Osminkin, on the one hand, limits the contemporary (post-Fordist) production by the production of words and linguistic units. On the other hand, he defines poetry as the language’s “idler”, as its “free agent” feeding on gaps and failures within the discursive texture.

Resultantly, in Osminkin’s theoretical justifications and especially in his poetic and performative practice, the “leftist” discourse functions as a “shocking” clownish outfit, needed for an outlandish trickster’s act that most of all resonates with Dmitry Prigov’s legacy. Osminkin also frequently cites Prigov, yet, his connection with the latter is deeper than the young poet would admit. Osminkin inherits Prigov’s interpretation of culture as the system of language practices, consisting of “grammars” and unconsciously reproduced rhetorical gestures, as well as his conceptualization of poetry as the methodical deconstruction of all “truths” and their rhetorical mechanisms. However, Prigov’s method also included the elimination of the author’s “authenticity” and voice replaced by the performance of the discursive “image”. In Osminkin’s poetry the authorial voice and subjectivity are much more pronounced and distinctive than in Prigov’s. The paper will explore whether the subjectivity constructed in Osminkin’s texts revives traditional Romantic subject, or whether it incorporates performance and deconstruction in a radically new concept of the subject.

Artem Magun. “Art and negativity (and forget the violence)”

1) Violence is an ideological concept that should be banned from the first philosophy
2) Its phenomenon can be explained by
a) an active force
b) a negativity involved in its relation to others
3) Art is also a problematic concept as long as we call by this name all that pleases without fulfillment
4) The use of «violence» in art is one aspect of a larger aesthetic negativity. To understand it, we need to speak of various ways in which art denies, negates its content, and is itself negated.
5) The talk tries to cover the variety of artistic negativity and put it into a relation with logic.

Serguei Oushakine. “The Cruel Romance of War: On Rituals of ‘Good’ Violence”

In my talk, I look closely at war-songs written and/or performed by veterans of the Afghan war. I will read these ballads, waltzes, and tangos as examples of rituals through which the violence of war is articulated, placated, and, finally, incorporated into larger narratives about the country. I will argue that symbolic reformulations of the Afghan war that have been produced “from below” by veterans, soldiers’ mothers, and peripheral cultural entrepreneurs during the last 25 years have created a powerful socio-symbolic configuration that merged issues of war experience with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Providing effective emotional scripts, these symbolic reformulations are used now as universal templates for streamlining Russia’s military history.

In particular, I am interested in a major genre transformation of this military chanson. Started as a minor cultural form (a combination of zhestokii romans and samodeiatel’naia pesnia), the military chanson eventually evolved into an epic, ode-like, formation. Violent experience, contained and aestheticized by the performative ritual, is used as a foundation for social solidarity and affective recognition.

Alexei Penzin. “Truth and Violence: Militant Subjectivity in Lenin’s Writings”

In his final work, Michel Foucault has produced a seminal draft of an analysis of “revolutionary subjectivity” based on his idea of “practices of self” in Classical Antiquity. According to Foucault, the access to a philosophical or political truth is not a formal epistemological procedure; it demands a transformation of subject’s existence through various forms of self-empowerment. The legacy of Antiquity had an afterlife, which played a key role in constitution of modern political subjectivity. Since 19th century this subjectivity was reborn in revolutionary movements—in emerging radical political movements and parties and finally in practice of a “different” or “activist” life embodying examples of “another world” which is possible. Foucault makes a reference to the history of the Russian revolutionary movements (the “underground man” and “nihilists”). I would like to continue this genealogical line to Lenin’s writings. Investing his preoccupations more in the problem of Party organization, Lenin still emphasizes the practices of self-empowerment through concepts such as revolutionary violence, discipline and the “habit.” Moreover, the famous Lenin’s distinction between “formal” and “real” democracy implies a transformation of subjectivity as the only access to the political truth of communism. The paper concludes with a discussion about the destitution of the revolutionary subjectivity after the collapse of “real communism” and possibilities of its reinvention today. I will also relate the question of violence and subjectivity to my more general research project on the “continuum” as dominant ontological form of modernity.

Kevin Platt. “Dmitry Golynko and the Weaponization of Post-Lyricism (from the Language of Inquiry to the Language of War)”

Dmitry Golynko, like many other contemporary Russian poets, has continued and deepened a legacy of late twentieth-century experimental and conceptual poetry. As with other contemporary Russian experimental poets, his theoretical and poetic work palpably draws on the writings of the poets of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school. In his most recent works we may recognize his intense practice of deployment of the words of others in a form of discourse poetry that utterly dispenses with the lyric voice in favor of a situational description of social, political and existential occurrence. These works recall, for instance, Lyn Hejinian’s post-lyrical poetic practices. As Hejinian wrote, “The ‘personal’ is already a plural condition. […] One can look for it and already one is not oneself, one is several, incomplete, and subject to dispersal.” Yet in dismantling the lyric voice and examining the linguistic constitution of the subject, Golynko’s work adopts rather different tactics than Hejinian’s. Her work in this mode was and is motivated by a desire for a post-lyric phenomenology of reconciliation that allows new forms of community to arise. In contrast, Golynko probes the social and political structures that prevent commonal­ities from arising—and forces the reader to confront his or her possible complicity in these structures. Golynko’s experiments in post-lyrical discourse poetry shock us by letting the voice of the other in, showing us what already may be inside each contemporary subject in the first place. His generation of revulsion, squeamishness and repulsion is key to the weaponization of post-lyricism.

John Roberts. “Art, Neoliberalism and the Fate of the Commons”

In the period of capitalism’s post-70s economic stagnation it is not hard to understand how the concept of the commons has become crucial, not only to thinking politically through the prevailing forces of compression and monopolization, but also as a critical site of cultural and artistic engagement. Indeed, the rise of the Commons as a political and cultural category since the mid-1990s (Nancy, Agamben, Negri, Virno, De Angelis) has produced an unprecedented mutual space between art praxis and political praxis. In this sense we might call the majority of post-object or participatory art practices today, involved in various forms of collaboration, community interaction, and group learning, as less concerned, in a classical sense, with political representation, than with performing and developing forms of “common exchange,” outside of, or in contradistinction to, the depredations of the market. Consequently this is less a shift in art’s intellectual priorities, than a cultural and strategic shift in art’s modes of production and reception. In this paper I examine the limitations, aporias, and possibilities of this shift, with the major provision, that these changes represent not simply a “return” to politics in art, but something far more fundamental: art’s place in the forcing and enactment of new forms of non-identitary subjectivity.

Kristin Romberg. “Post-Soviet Project Work: Mid-Century Institution as Form”

This paper seeks to contribute to a growing literature about the relationship between “project work” of the 1990s and 2000s and the historical avant-garde by examining three examples from post-Soviet Russia: Anatole Osmolovsky’s Protiv Vsekh (1997-2000), Chto Delat’ (2003-present), and the Karl Marx School for the English Language (2005-2007). Historically, the avant-garde has been associated with the transgressive acts of anarchist politics, its artists claiming for themselves a radical freedom and sovereignty formerly the province of outlaws and kings. The groups examined in this paper are notable instead for taking up institutional forms—the political party, newspaper, and school—foundational to modern modes of governance, whether understood as enlightened and democratic or as part of an ideological state apparatus. Although rooted in earlier periods, these institutions became a governmental norm during the Cold War in both East and West. This paper explores how the use of these forms situates these projects in relation to shifts in geopolitical, social, and economic power structures in the post-Soviet period, when the rise of neoliberal ideology coincided with the delayed reception of post-structural, feminist, and post-colonial critiques.

Aleksandr Skidan. “Dramatizing Violence: Scenarios of Revolt in Contemporary Russian Poetry”

The paper will discuss reflections of/on violence in the poetic practice of  three contemporary Russian poets — Galina Rymbu, Kirill Medvedev and Elena Kostyleva. In contrast to the “non-violent” post-Soviet cultural consensus of 1990s, marked by the critical reconsideration of the violence and its aftermath brought by the October Revolution, Civil War and Stalinist repressions, this new generation of poets, whose development coincides with the restoration of capitalism in Russia, put this “peaceful” liberal paradigm into question. Galina Rymbu, Kirill Medvedev and Elena Kostyleva provide three different models of reflecting violence in their work, yet all of them are symptomatic in that they recognize and deal with the violence inherent not only in the State and its repressive apparatus, as during Soviet and early post-Soviet liberal discourse, but, first and foremost, in the State ideological apparatus and the social order at large. The latter includes everyday language as a general medium of social communication and sexual relationships structured as power relations, thus making the militant revolutionary vision of social change at once more urgent than ever before and hard to imagine in the present conditions. It is poetical imagery and its encounter with  oppressive conditions that still hold a political perspective in the age of political saturation.

Oxana Timofeeva. “Prolegomena to any Future Theory of Community”

The paper analyses the dialectics of violence in the process of constitution of the human subject which underlies a constitution of any human community. It discusses a contradictory relation between the so-called animal unconscious multiplicity, on the one hand, and the alleged unity of a human subject, on the other, and shows how, on a passage between the two, a desire is being produced, which must be interpreted politically.  It shows the connection of the psychoanalytic idea the repression and the return of the repressed, both with Christian tradition, and with a communist project, and shows an ambiguity of a communist horizon for the community, based on violence upon nature, upon animals, upon the other, and, last but not least, upon oneself (the latter can be described as self-domestication of humanity). How to deal with this principal ambiguity? How to radicalize it, taking into account the return of the repressed (which is connected, but not entirely symmetrical, to the oppressed), and the persistence of an animal multiplicity in the constitution of political desire? Those are the questions which have to be addressed by a potentially new theory of communist and democratic community.

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