Mikhail Epstein

On the Stature of Things in Russian Thought

The fact that Dr. Anesa Miller-Pogacar found the source of inspiration for her “Lyrical Archive” in the Russian intellectual tradition is salient evidence of the latter's long-standing preoccupation with the “mystery of things,” with material objects as phenomenal codes of being. Among the characteristic features of Russian philosophy, Aleksei Losev has put “ontologism” in the first place. He states that, in Russia, ontologism, “in contrast to the West, sharpens into materiality […] The very idea of the godhead, as it was developed in Russian church, foregrounds elements of corporeality (as in the doctrine of ‘Sophia,’ ‘the wisdom of God’), which Pavel Florenskii found to be the peculiar feature of Russian Orthodoxy, as distinct from Byzantine Orthodoxy.”

Indeed, from the time of the Slavophiles, Russian thinkers have criticized the abstract idealism and excessive epistemological self-reflexivity of Western philosophy and searched for some basis of religious and ethical justification of material being, “holy corporeality,” to use Vladimir Solov’ev’s expression. To account for the origin of such ontological bias, one might recall the well-known tradition of “dual-faith” (dvoeverie ) — the syncretic unity of Christian and pagan beliefs in medieval Russia, whereby the cult of Mother-Earth and the cult of the Heavenly Father continually interacted to produce a unique mentality of “idealistic materialism.” On the level of philosophical reflection, this tradition underlies not only the revolutionary materialism of Herzen and Chernyshevskii, but also Vladimir Solov’ev's influential version of religious materialism, Nikolai Fedorov's doctrine of the material and technological resurrection of past and future generations on earth, Pavel Florenskii's subtle conceptualization of the corporeality of Orthodox icons and ritual, and Vasilii Rozanov's infatuation with everyday life in its most spontaneous and fleshy manifestations.

Although Russian-Soviet materialism of the late 19th-20th centuries was readily cast in the forms of European positivist science, it was far from being a mere echo of Western influences. On the contrary, the success of Marxist materialism in Russia was due to the fact that Russia was ready to embrace the most radical of the materialist Western teachings on the basis of her own tenacious intellectual predilections. Later on, the official Soviet ideology propagated “militant materialism” (Lenin), which, in fact, celebrated the complete subjugation of material life by the power of idealistic projections. This system proved to be hostile and destructive toward things in their eidetic wholeness and practical utility. In the wake of Soviet materialism, interest in the ontological status of things has been revived in Conceptualism, a powerful movement of the Soviet artistic and intellectual underground of the 1970-90s. Conceptualism, as represented in the work of Il’ia Kabakov, Dmitrii Prigov, Vitalii Komar and Aleksandr Melamid, displayed a special artistic proclivity for trash and garbage, the commonplace and neglected things of day-to-day existence, degraded both by the natural course of time and by prevailing ideological concepts.

Another tendency, also born in the Russian underground of the early 1980s, pushed further the conceptualist interest in everyday things, while simultaneously attempting to restore their solid ontological status, thwarted by the technological and ideological pressures of the 20th century. Although in the post-industrial world, things have lost the monumental epic value that inhered in their economic and family status of previous centuries, their very fragility and transitoriness generates a new, lyrical value as revealed through their nervous, eclectic, both ironic and sentimental relationships with “unrooted” postmodern individuals. The multiplication of artificial orders of the hyperreal and simulacra sharpens our nostalgia for authentic reality as contained in the res itself, a nostalgia expressed in our desire to break through the chains of signifiers to the transsemiotic realm of “things as they are.” The purpose of the “Lyrical Museum” first deployed in a Moscow communal apartment in 1983-84 was to reinvest the everyday, the quotidian, with dignity and wonder. In those days of the collapse of communism — the most extraordinary utopia of the past — we felt it was our duty to create a utopia of the ordinary rather than simply reject utopianism as such.

This explains the historical context of the theories and practices of “realogy” (the science of things) to which Dr. Miller-Pogacar alludes in her work. Her Lyrical Archive, a comprehensive insight into the human meaning of things, only a small excerpt of which can be presented in this publication, is one of the most fascinating intersections of Russian and American intellectual intuitions in the postcommunist/postmodern age.


Anesa Miller-Pogacar. Introduction to a Lyrical Archive: Object and Text in the Suspension of Emotion


SYMPOSION. A Journal of Russian Thought