Mikhail Epstein



In the book: Russian Postmodernism: New Perspectives on Post-Soviet Culture. New York, Oxford: Berghahn Books, 1999, pp.456-468.

1. Removing the Quotation Marks

Venedikt Erofeev is the first but certainly not the sole manifestation of the new sentimentality. At the end of the 1980s and particularly at the beginning of the 1990s, Erofeev's 'sentimental aesthetics' became a major influence on Russian literature. Sergei Gandlevsky, one of the leading poets of his generation, has defined this trend as "a critical sentimentalism," holding the middle ground between two extremes, namely a lofty and detached Metarealism that ignores contemporary life, and Conceptualism, which is deliberately reductionist, ridiculing all stilted ideals and models of discourse. "Situated between two polar opposites, it [critical sentimentalism] borrows as needed from its more resolute neighbours, transforming their extremes in its own fashion: it diminishes the arrogance of the righteous poetry and curtails the excesses of the ironic poetry. Such a method of poetic perception of the world is more dramatic than the other two because its aesthetics is subject to minimal reglamentation; it has no ground except that of feeling, mind, and taste." These principles define not only Gandlevsky’s own poetry but the skeptical and sentimental ‘hangover poetics,' which cuts the ground out from not only the haughty sober person but the haughty drunk as well — a practice introduced into the latest Russian literature by Venedikt Erofeev.

It is significant that the Conceptualist artists, who represent the most radical Russian version of Postmodernism, have turned out to be most susceptible to the aesthetics of sentimentality. As early as the second half of the 1980s, Dmitry Prigov, the leader of the Moscow Conceptualists, called for a change of direction, toward a "new sincerity." Turning away from strict Conceptualist schemas, which parodied models of Soviet ideology, the new movement was to strive for a lyrical assimilation of these dead layers of being and consciousness. This sincerity is new because it presupposes the death of the traditional sincerity, in which the inspired poet identified with his hero. However, at the same time, this new sincerity transcends the pointed alienation, the impersonalism, the quotedness proper to Conceptualism. The new sincerity belongs to a post-quotation art, to a new, "shimmering aesthetics" (Dmitry Prigov’s term), born of the mutual relation established between the voice of the author and the quoted material. "Taking the place of the conceptual, a shimmering relationship between the author and text has developed, in which it is very hard to define (not only for the reader but for the author, too) the degree of sincerity in the immersion into the text and the purity and distance of the withdrawal from it." This ‘scintillating’ aesthetics, reminiscent of the glimmering irony-as-seriousness present in the work of Erofeev (‘trans-irony’), leads us into the sphere of ‘trans-lyricism’, which is foreign to both Modernism and Postmodernism. This ‘post-postmodern,’ neo-sentimental aesthetics is defined not by the sincerity of the author or the quotedness of his style, but by the mutual interaction of the two. What is characteristic is the elusive border of their difference, which allows even the most sincere utterance to be perceived as a subtly quoted imitation, while a commonplace quotation may sound like a piercingly lyrical confession.

Here, for example, is the Conceptualist Timur Kibirov, the most popular poet of the 1990s, addressing another famous Conceptualist, Lev Rubinstein, with the following words:

I may be only a common wog,

you, forgive me, are a Jew!

Why are we crying unseemly

Over our Russia?


A vehicle stands on the bridge,

And the vehicle has no wheels.

Lev Semyonich! Be a man -

Don’t shirk tears!


In the dark turquoise sky

A quiet angel has flown by.

Have you managed to forget, Lyova,

What it is that he was singing?


Overshadowed by the foliage,

You and I do not seem big.

But we will be saved together

By Beauty, for Beauty’s sake.

By Goodness and Truth, Lyova,

By the tears of Gethsemane,

By the crimson moistness of nuptials,

By the water turned to wine!


We are specks of evil dust,

But the soul is tepid-warm!

It is Easter, Lev Semyonych, Easter!

Lyova, unfurl your wings!


In God’s Kingodm, oh Lyova,

In that Kingdom which cometh,

You incoherent Non-Christian,

I contest, we’ll all come alive!

It would appear that Conceptualism should exclude the serious usage of words such as "soul," "tear," "angel," "beauty," "truth," and "the Kingdom of Heaven" in their primary meaning. But here, at the very peak of Conceptualism and, as it were, at the exit from it, suddenly these same words are being written again, some even with capital letters, which even the 19th century found overly pompous and old-fashioned. Having become haughty and stiff through centuries of traditional, official usage, these words have now been purified by being kept out of circulation. After going through a period of radical deadening and carnivalesque derision, they are now returning to a transcendental transparency and lightness, as if they were not of this world.

Some of the expressions in Kibirov's text—such as "we cry unseemly," "the soul is tepid-warm," "beauty will save us"—are already conscious of their own banality and triteness. Nevertheless, they offer themselves as if they were both the first words ever encountered and the last remaining words, which essentially cannot be replaced by anything else. Any attempts to find substitutes for these words, in order to express the same meaning in a more original, subtle, or figurative manner would be perceived as an even more glaring banality and pretentiousness. The quotationality of these words is so obvious that they can no longer be reduced to irony but presuppose further lyrical assimilation. For Conceptualism, quotationality is something that needs to be asserted over and over again. For post-Conceptualism, quotationality is the initial axiom, grounding all subsequent lyrical hypotheses. If Conceptualism enacted the way in which the most important, lofty words had been turned into clichés, then the radical courage of post-Conceptualism is to be found in the way it takes up these same clichéd words and uses them in their literal meaning, which has by now split into two: into a ‘dead’ meaning and a ‘born-again’ meaning. Lyrical sincerity and sentimentality die out in these clichéd words, in order that death could be trampled by death, so to speak.

This is the courage to which the poet exhorts his addressee: "Lev Semyonych! Be a man — do not shirk tears!" The courage of restraint is perceived as a form of cowardice, as fear in the face of banality: it gives way to the courage of impulsiveness, to the lyricism of banality. There is banality, there is the consciousness (soznanie) of this banality, there is the banality of this consciousness and there is, finally, the intentional consciousness (soznatel'nost') of banality itself as a means of its transcendence. Kibirov sums it up as follows: "Don’t run from banality, don’t fight it face to face (that always produces the most tragicomic results). Attack from the rear; dig in where language, consciousness, and life have long been considered completely under the control of banality, where attack is least expected. (...) In this, it seems to me, is the purpose and duty of contemporary poetry."

Kibirov’s post-Conceptualism, with its "tepid soul," "quiet angel" and "the Kingdom of Heaven," is the next stage of development of Erofeev’s trans-irony. It is the phase when words, having been turned inside-out by carnival, reclaim their primary meaning: but this primary meaning is already detached, otherworldly, virtual. Trans-sentimentality is sentimentality after the death of sentimentality. It has passed through all the circles of carnival, irony and black humor, in order to become aware of its own banality, accepting it as an inevitability and as the source of a new lyricism.

It now becomes clear that all the ‘banal’ concepts have not simply been undermined and replaced: they have gone through a profound metamorphosis and are now returning from another direction, under the sign of "trans." This applies not only to Erofeev’s "trans-irony" and Prigov’s "trans-lyricism." It also applies to something that could be called "trans-utopianism." This is the rebirth of utopia after its own death, after its subjection to Postmodernism’s severe skepticism, relativism and its anti- or post-utopian consciousness. Here is what several Moscow artists and art scholars of the post-Conceptual wave have said about the subject: "It is crucial that the problem of the universal be raised as a contemporary issue. I understand that it is a utopia. It is done completely consciously, yes, utopia is dead, so long live utopia. Utopia endows the individual with a more significant and a wider horizon" (Viktor Miziano). "The future of contemporary art is in the will to utopia, in the breakthrough into reality through a membrane of quotations, it is in sincerity and pathos" (Anatoly Osmolovsky). The subject here is the resurrection of utopia after the death of utopia, no longer as a social project with claims to transforming the world, but as a new intensity of life experience and a broader horizon for the individual. Trans-utopianism, trans-pathos are projections of the same "lyrical" need, which transcended its own negation in Postmodernism.

In considering the names that might possibly be used to designate the new era following "Postmodernism," one finds that the prefix "trans’" stands out in a special way. The last third of the twentieth century developed under the sign of "post," which signalled the demise of such concepts of modernity as "truth" and "objectivity," "soul" and "subjectivity," "utopia" and "ideality," "primary origin" and "originality," "sincerity" and "sentimentality." All of these concepts are now being reborn in the form of "trans-subjectivity," "trans-idealism," "trans-utopianism," "trans-originality," "trans-lyricism," "trans-sentimentality" etc. This kind of lyricism, however, does not surge forth spontaneously from the soul; this idealism does not proudly soar above the material world; this utopianism is unlike the one at the beginning of the twentieth century, which aggressively sought to reconstruct the society. It is an "as if" lyricism, an "as if" idealism, an "as if" utopianism, aware of its own failures, insubstantiality, and secondariness. Nevertheless, these "trans" phenomena seek to come to self-expression in the form of repetition. Paradoxically as it may sound, it is precisely through repetition that they reclaim their primacy and authenticity. Tired gestures, which are no longer automatized, as in the poetics of Postmodernism, are replete with their own lyricism. In repetition, in quotation, there is a naturalness, a simplicity, an inevitability that is lacking in a primary act, born of effort and with claims to revelation.

As a rule, the destiny of originality is to be turned into imitation and cliché, allowing the cliché itself to be perceived as a simple and unforced movement of the soul, a new sincerity. Over time, Postmodernism itself may be perceived as an initial and inadequate reaction to this aesthetics of repetition, whose suprising emergence seemed to demand a full anaesthetization and automatisation of feelings. Gradually, as repetition and citationality turn into habit, they will become the foundation for a new lyric poetry, whose journey has its beginning and not its end in ironic estrangement.

Umberto Eco has remarked that in the postmodern era even the language of feelings has lost its "innocence " and requires the use of quotation marks. The word "love" has been repeated so often that an educated person of our time is loathe to say simply to his beloved "I love you," without adding "I love you, as so-and-so has said...", quoting a poet or thinker of his own choice. The "I love" in inverted commas represents a more differentiated feeling, more ironic, more indirectly seductive than a simple "I love," — a feeling that cannot be even expressed with a particular word but only with quotation marks. However, if these quotation marks were to be framed by another set of quotation marks, and these in turn by another, and yet another, then this increased complexity would not be echoed by the feeling. """""I Love""""" designates nothing but love for inverted commas. In fact, Eco's example already implies a doubling of quotation marks because the statement "I love you madly" is allegedly taken from Barbara Cartland, a prolific author of pulp fiction. In the mouth of a super-erudite and self-reflexive postmodern lover such a declaration: "As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly," implies a double irony, as a quote from somebody who would have cited Barbara Cartland. This is how, along graded steps of reflexivity, in the absence of any support and repercussion of feelings, Postmodernism’s self-quoting art continued to move.

If at the early stage of Postmodernism even the language of feelings was subjected to the use of quotation marks, then at present quotation marks have penetrated the word so deeply that, even without quotation marks, it bears the imprint of all its former usages. The word contains secondariness within itself, which is an imperative condition for the freshness of its repetition to be felt against the background of these former usages. When the word "I love" is uttered under these conditions, it means: yes, this is how Dante or Maupassant might have expressed it, but in the present case it is I who am saying it, and I have no other word with which to utter what is designated by it. Thus the trans-quotational word contains the presumption of guilt and an implict act of apology — confessing its own citationality, the trans-quotational word at the same time underlines its absoluteness, its non-substitutability, its singularity. It is an affirmation of "I love," although the same "I love" might have been uttered by Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Mayakovsky. The postmodern utterance of "I love" was masked by citationality as a loophole for meaning, in which the subject of language could shield himself from its literal meaning and its responsible consequences. At the present time, citationality, by contrast, serves as a trigger of meaning: the repetition is underlined in order to cross out banality. The word consists of a double layer — the quoted and the trans-quotational, which is uttered for the first time, here and now, thus opening the way for a new polysemy.

While the polysemy of Postmodernism consisted of a multiplicity of levels of reflection, play, and representation, of quotation marks being superimposed on quotation marks, the polysemy of the era of "trans" is of a higher order. It represents the movement of meaning in two directions at once: both the application and removal of quotation marks. The same word may sound like """"""I love"""""" and I Love!!! Like """"""Kingdom of Heaven"""""" and Kingdom of Heaven! The two dimensions of the text are inseparable: the disquotation issues from the depths of quotation marks, just as resurrection issues from the depths of death.

2. Postmodernism as the Beginning of Postmodernity

How can we define the place of Postmodernism in the linear progression of world history? In the first place, we must distinguish between two heterogeneous terms that have been used to designate the "modern":

1. Modernity (or, in Russian terminology, Novoe vremia, New Times) denotes a relatively long epoch of world history, beginning with the end of the Middle Ages and lasting approximately half a millenium, that is, beginning with the Renaissance and continuing until the middle of the twentieth century.

2. Modernism is a relatively short cultural period, coming at the end of the era of Modernity and lasting approximately half a century, from the end of the 19th century untill the 1950s and 1960s, depending on the version one follows.

Modernism does not merely end the era of Modernity, it accentuates all its contradictions. In the first instance, it deepens the gulf between European individualism at its extreme limit of self-reflexivity and particularization, and the alienating, impersonal tendencies in culture and society (the development of mass society, totalitarian government, atomic and electronic technologies, the theoretical discovery of the unconscious and so on). Hence the theme of alienation, the unprecedented pessimism and the neo-mythologies of Modernist art, in which individuality at its extreme limit is revealed as but a manifestion of the impersonal principles that are its antithesis. The explosion of these contradictions, accentuated by Modernism, has taken humanity out of the domain of Modernity as such, into the era commonly called postmodern.

Just as the "modern" can be subdivided into two periods, a long one of Modernity and a shorter one of Modernism, so too may an analogous division be appropriate for the "postmodern." If not, it seems impossible to understand what the postmodern follows in the wake of — modernity or modernism We are dealing here with two differently charged meanings of the prefix "post."

1. The "post" in "Postmodernity," correlated with Modernity, refers to a long epoch, at the beginning of which we find ourselves living today.

2. The "post" in "Postmodernism," correlated with Modernism, refers to the initial period of entry into that larger epoch of postmodernity.

If the two large eras—Modernity and Postmodernity—mirror each other, then it is logical that the end of the one and the beginning of the other will also mirror each other. In other words, Modernism is the concluding period of the epoch of Modernity, while Postmodernism is the first period of the epoch of Postmodernity.

This epoch of Postmodernity, which had its inception in the very recent past, in the middle of the twentieth century, could last for several centuries. In this sense, it would mirror the epoch of Modernity, which it has succeeded. Postmodernism, on the other hand, has lasted so far for but a short time, spanning only one or two generations. It may even be the case that Postmodernism, like most such cultural complexes, will have an even shorter lifespan than the primary phenomenon against which it reacted, in this case Modernism. Postmodernism, in fact, found things ‘ready-made’: it arose after the problems and contradictions posed by Modernism had been fully expressed. Its job was to solve them.

The fundamental thrust of Postmodernism's solution was toward a new impersonalism, the use of the unconscious and superconscious, which are reminiscent of the medieval mentality. This was accompanied by fragmentariness, dispersion, eclecticism, irony with respect to the absolute (which appears under various names: "totality," "canon," "center," "logocentrism," "metaphysics," etc.) In other words, Postmodernism works against two major postulates, that of the individual and the absolute, whose tortuous dividedness gave rise to the inexorably tragic sense of Modernism, combining extreme optimism and extreme pessimism.

The man of Modernity is embodied in Goethe’s Faust, Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. He aims for the absolute and tries to encompass it with his own personality. The collapse of this aspiration marked the end of the entire epoch of Modernity. Modernism, with all its diverse philosophical and artistic schools—Symbolism, Expressionism, Futurism, Cubism, Dadaism, Suprematism, Constructivism, Surrealism, psychoanalysis—enacted the inability of the individual to encompass and subjugate the trans-individual, which assailed it from all sides, including from within itself. Diagnosing this condition could be expressed pessimistically, as in Kafka, or optimistically, as in Mayakovsky; as the terror of alienation or the ecstasy of collectivism. But in either case, it marked the end of Modernity. Beyond it loomed the epoch of Postmodernity, which Nikolai Berdiaev called a "New Middle Ages," by analogy with the premodern age. For Berdiaev, this signalled "the end of humanism, individualism, the formal liberalism of the culture of modernity."

In its critique of Modernity and all its accompanying categories, such as "subject" and "object," "individuality" and "reality," "author" and "history," Postmodernism does indeed begin with a quasi-medieval, trans-personal and anonymous perception of the world, even if it is not centered on God or the absolute but instead projected onto "alterity" as a measure of independently interactive factors. From this perspective, the principle of individuality is merely an illusory effect of impersonal mechanisms, which act in and on us: language, the unconscious, molecular, genetic, social and economic structures. The absolute is but an illusion of semiotic practices, a stylistic ploy, a projection of strivings for power that emanate from any discursive act and which begin with the inarticulate mumblings of the child demanding its mother’s breast. The postmodern critique dethrones the absolute and the individual as two Western myths, formulated in the Middle Ages and Modernity respectively. In keeping with this, there is a debunking both of the masks of individuality (authorship, originality, freedom) and of the absolute (the transcendental, truth, reality).

At this stage it is easy to suspend the contradictions and traumas that defined the Modernist consciousness. A kind of medieval anonymity begins to dominate, but without the medieval faith in the absolute: instead there is a kind of game, but one in which the will of the players is unclear; all that is clear is the infinity of the toys of the game — signs, quotations, informational codes. According to Michel Foucault, postmodern writing "has merely transposed the empirical characteristics of an author to a transcendental anonymity. The extremely visible signs of the author's empirical activity are effaced to allow the play, in parallel or opposition, of religious and critical modes of characterization ...[T]he author has disappeared; God and man died a common death." If Modernism is a mixture of the agony of dying and the euphoria of hope, then Postmodernism is the poetics of a successfully completed death and the play of posthumous masks (necropoetics). The tragedy of the division between the individual and the absolute, between the individual and society, and between consciousness and reality, becomes as impossible as the avant-garde utopia and ecstasy of overcoming that division. What kind of alienation is possible for a theory (postmodern) that does not accept anything as one's "own" and "originary"? There is nothing left to become alienated from. The cause of tragedy has thus disappeared, just as has the possibility of utopia. Quotationality instead of self-expression, simulation instead of truth, the play with signs instead of the reflection of reality, difference instead of contradiction: such is the post-individual, post-tragic, post-utopian world, fascinated by its own secondariness, its propensity to use everything as material for the ultimate and infinite game.

Now is the time to remind ourselves of the radical finitude of even this ultimate of utopias called "Postmodernism." It is time to temporalize it, that is, to place it within the context of a history that ironically continues to advance. What will come after this "post" and what kind of regenerative meaning lies in the very gesture of inevitable repetition? What is the constructive meaning of deconstruction? What will be born from this feast of death and what will be resurrected from that which dies? It is these "proto" and "trans" phenomena—as signs of birth and resurrection—that will mark the the long epoch of Postmodernity, which is ahead and which comes after Postmodernism.

Our current challenge is to demarcate two related historical concepts, Postmodernism and Postmodernity, whose complex borders are being defined in our own time. Postmodernism, as we have seen, is part of a much larger historical formation, which we have called Postmodernity. We have been able to account for only two or three initial decades of Postmodernity (beginning with the 1960s or 1970s). We have taken stock not of Postmodernity as a whole, but only of its initial, most declarative and critically minded stage: that of Postmodernism. The concepts we have associated with the next stage of Postmodernity coming after Postmodernism—such as "shimmering aesthetics", "new sentimentality", "new utopianism", "subjunctive modality"—will, we trust, be helpful in understanding the long, many-century era that lies before us. What does all this mean: to live at the close of Postmodernism but only on the threshold of Postmodernity? What is Postmodernity as far as it is irreducible to Postmodernism? Living precisely in this smallest of intervals between Postmodernism and some next stage of Postmodernity we bear the responsibility for the meaning of this crucial moment.



Sergei Gandlevsky, "Absolution from Grief," in Lichnoe delo No.-- Literaturno-khudozhestvennyi al’manakh [Personal Matter No.--A Literary and Artistic Almanach]. Moscow, "Soiuzteatr" STD SSSR. Glavnaia redaktsiia teatral'noi literatury, 1991, 231.

Dmitry Prigov, "What More Is There To Say?", in Third Wave. The New Russian Poetry, ed by Kent Johnson and Stephen Ashby. (Ann Arbour, 1992), 102.

"Chechmek" - 'wog’ - a colloquial, contemptuous or ironic name for a representative of the Eastern national minorities in Russia.

Timur Kibirov, "To Lev Rubinshtein" (1987-88), in Timur Kibirov, Santimenty: Vosem' Knig [Sentiments: Eight Books], Belgorod, "Risk", 1994, 172, 179, 181. In the fifth stanza there is a reference to Biblical episodes: the miracle Christ perfomed at the wedding in Cana of transforming water into wine, and Christ’s suffering before death in the garden of Gethsemane. It is significant that Kibirov’s most comprehensive book of poetry is entitled Sentiments, and contains such ‘soul-touching’ genres as the idyll, the elegy and the epistle.

A purely Conceptualist play on a literary cliché from Dostoevsky’s Idiot ("beauty shall save the world") is given in Dmitry Prigov’s poem The beautiful Oka is flowing... ( more on the latter in my book Paradoksy novizny [Paradoxes of Innovation], pp. 153-4). This poem is well known to Kibirov, who proceeds, in his post-Conceptualist manner, to take out of inverted commas the image which Prigov has placed in inverted commas. Thus the meaning of Dostoevsky's utterance is restored on the level of trans-irony.

Third Way. The New Russian Poetry, opt. cit., 224.

Kto est kto v sovremennom iskusstve Moskvy [Who Is Who In Contemporary Moscow Art]. (Moscow, "Album", 1993), without pagination. Viktor Miziano (b. 1957) is an art critic and curator of the Centre of Contemporary Art in Moscow. He is the editor-in-chief of the Khudozhestvennyi zhurnal ["Art Journal"]. Anatolii Osmolovsky (b. 1969) is the leader of the anti-Conceptualist movements of E.T.I. and the "Revolutinonary Rival Programme NETSEZUDIK".

See Umberto Eco. Postscript to The Name of the Rose. Harcourt Brace &Company, 1984.

Since all three correlative terms have exhausted their meaning in relation to the large historical epochs ( Antiquity, Middle Ages, Modernity), the introduction of the term "Postmodernity" ("post-new" times) is a necessary if not entirely felicitous innovation. The alternative term—"newest times"—which was current in Soviet historiography, assumed a smoother transition between "modernity" ("the new times" ) and the "newest" times. It also differentiates the two epochs according to a simple degree of "newness" rather than in terms of a change of paradigm.

Nikolai Berdiaev, Novoe srednevekov’e. Razmyshleniia o sud’be Rossii i Evropy. [The New Middle Ages. Reflections on the Destiny of Russia and Europe]. (Moskva, "Feniks", 1990), 24.

Michel Foucault, "What Is an Author?", in Critical Theory since 1965, ed. by Hazard Adams & Leroy Searle, Tallahassee: Floirida State University Press, 1990, p. 141.


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