Friday, February 8th, 2019, 4:30pm-6:30pm
Reorientalism: Modernist Experimentation in the Stalinist State, Nariman Skakov (Stanford University)
The project rethinks the temporal and geographical boundaries of Russian modernism as it collided against the dictum of socialist realism in the 1930s. It offers a reinterpretation of the avant-garde/totalitarianism debate by means of a decentralized notion of modernist aesthetics. Drawing upon extensive Russian, Kazakh, Uzbek, and Turkmen archival sources, Reorientalism explores theoretical works, books for children, prose, film scripts, photo books, and documentary films by Viktor Shklovsky, Andrei Platonov, Aleksandr Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, and Dziga Vertov. Key experimenters with visual form, language, and sound during the 1920s, these figures channeled their creative energy eastwards, towards the Soviet Orient, in the 1930s and early 1940s. The formal demands of the doctrine of socialist realism and the political push to explore geographical liminality put pressure on these famed modernists, and as a result, the formal audacities of modernism were subdued. Yet in the East, their work found a constructive application, representing a crucial aesthetic development as Soviet society was undergoing a drastic ideological transformation.
The protagonists of this study took an active part in two major processes: the cultivation of the new Soviet aesthetic-ideological form and the formation of Soviet subjectivity. These envoys of the Soviet avant-garde and modernism readily and enthusiastically adapted their knowledge and aesthetic convictions to the aims of the great social experiment. They all employed different strategies to cope with overwhelming political circumstances—from Shklovsky’s rhetorical evasiveness and Rodchenko and Stepanova’s ostensible total submission, to Vertov’s and Platonov’s interiorization of and attempts to imaginatively engage with a set of restrictive aesthetic precepts. Altogether, these stratagems of resistance and compliance comprise a compelling testimony to the fact that Russian modernism never settled down into a fixed aesthetic terrain. Instead, it evolved through the 1930s and the early 1940s by means of a representational dislocation.
The mode of making things strange (ostranenie) evolved into a preoccupation with strange and unfamiliar ethnic cultures; those cultures, while preserving an element of exoticism, were presented as comprehensible, clearly defined, and striving towards the universal proletarian ideal. As a result, formal difficulty transforms into clarity of content. Naturally, the clarity of the Stalinist cultural apparatus confronted the inherent formal difficulty of the fading avant-garde tradition. Modernist artifact, which contests its own representational limits, was transformed
into an affirmative mode of representation. Cultivated intellectualism, combined with challenges to the senses and perception, had no place in the mobilized socialist state, which required ideological clarity and cognitive “effortlessness.”