Mine was a very typical "middle-class" Jewish family which had already lost many of its ties to Jewish tradition. While two of my great-grandfathers were rabbis and Talmudic scholars, my parents and grandparents turned out to be ordinary Soviet white collar workers.It was typical, however, that both my mother and father were professional bookkeepers and preserved some traditional Jewish respect for the Book, even if only through financial ledgers. They wanted me to follow in their footsteps, but I deliberately reversed the trend and soon found myself studying not economics but philology at Moscow State University, connecting myself to words instead of numbers.
After graduation with a diploma in the theory of literature and Russian philology, I worked for several years as a researcher at the Institute of World Literature (Moscow) and taught Russian language and literature at several institutions of higher education. My membership in the Union of Writers allowed me to spend most of my life at home, just reading and writing about whatever happened to interest me. Two my books on the theory of literature and Russian poetry were published by academic presses in Moscow, but my philosophical and essayistic works for a long time remained unpublished. Being a father of four children gave a special satisfaction to my home life and provided material for some of my books, such as Meditations of a Homebody and Fatherhood.
The so-called era of stagnation during the seventies and early eighties was politically miserable and dull, although it provided the opportunity to concentrate on metaphysical matters which were not subject to the changing political fashions. In my view, this period of "timelessness" was nothing but a crude imitation of eternity. Some members of my so-called "missing" generation felt themselves to be as close to eternity as the greatest visionaries of the Middle Ages. Other contemporaries tried to parody the official culture while ridiculing the present, the past, and the future. I tried to argue that paradise and parody are two complementary modes of feeling that are both necessary for survival in a Soviet utopia.
I wrote articles on literature, both Russian and Western, both classic and contemporary, and increasingly felt that there was no particular century or nation to which I would like to belong. Only existence on a crossroad of different cultures made me happy. My favorite genre became the essay which, in my opinion, combines the peculiarities of a frank diary, a fictional story, and a philosophical meditation. The same integrity was characteristic of ancient myths, but now I tried to revive this genre in such a way that it could oppose official Soviet mythology. It is not the authority of faith but an author's doubt that brings facts, fantasies, and generalizations together in the modern essay as a sort of experimental mythology.
All that was underground in the seventies gradually surfaced during the eighties. I had the opportunity to publish some of my books and to found several associations that united people of various professions who were interested in interdisciplinary cultural studies. The first was the "Club of Essayists," the second was the "Image and Thought" association and the third was the Laboratory of Contemporary Culture in Moscow's Experimental Creative Center. All of these groups tried to close the gaps between different social, national, and disciplinary spheres of culture and to create a transcultural type of consciousness. Our argument was: if culture helps to liberate one from the prison of nature, what force can liberate a person from the prison of culture itself? We invented types of meditation which allowed one to set oneself free from our native culture without resorting to counter-cultural escapades or primitive barbarism.
My first trip to the West became possible only in 1989. I travelled around Western Europe, lecturing on Russian literature and intellectual life in Oxford, Sorbonne and other universities. Since 1990, I have lived and worked in the United States, first as a Visiting Professor at Weslean University (CT), then as a fellow of The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (Washington, D.C.), and presently as a professor of Russian studies at Emory University (Atlanta).
Komar and Melamid. Nostalgic View of the Kremlin from Manhattan. The New Museum, NYC
America has become more than just a new culture for me: it is a fascinating transcultural experience which incorporates my nostalgia about Russia as a conceptual wonderland, a country that provokes and challenges theoretical imagination. Every country has a few key symbols which express its spiritual identity. In my forthcoming book, On the Borders of Cultures: Russian - American - Soviet (in Russian), I attempt to compare and contrast some of these rich tokens of Russian and American life, from Stalin and dinosaurs to paradoxes of comradeship and eroticism to the use of punctuation marks. My aim is not to reflect the empirical realities of the two countries per se, but rather to set up a mirror so that each society could reflect upon the other.
Recently my research focused on Russia's transition to postcommunism, including its striking affinities with postmodernist developments in the West, such as use of "polystylistics,"inclination to parody and creation of simulacra. My book on these latest developments After the Future: The Paradoxes of Postmodernism and Contemporary Russian Culture is now available from Massachusetts University Press (Amherst).
I continue to investigate the modern intellectual history of Russia and am at work on little explored territory: non-Marxist thought in Russia for the last forty years. With support from the National Council for Soviet and East European Research I am writing a monograph on such principal trends in recent Russian thought as "cosmism," "culturology," "personalism," "conceptualism," and several varieties of religious philosophy.
I have always chafed at the narrow limitations imposed by the conventional division of labor in humanistic scholarship. My areas of specialization range from Russian intellectual history, literature and ideolinguistics to the philosophy of religion and comparative cultural studies. It is difficult to elucidate properly in a short statement the inner connections between such diverse theoretical subjects. My inquiries into each of them, however, have been complimentary aspects of one methodological approach which I defined at various stages as "culturology," "continualism," "possibilism," "constructionism," etc. You can find more on some of these ideas in After the Future.
From this comes my fascination with the possibilities of transcultural and interdisciplinary communication opened by cyberspace. Now, retroactively, I can interpret our attempts at collective improvisations in the Club of Essayists (Moscow, 1982-1987) as a search for cyberspace within the more traditional space of a room and a roundtable. We grappled with the theoretical problems and practical implementation of collective thinking, interdisciplinary research and other euristic models. Our members represented both academic and non-academic professions.
Thus the idea of the Intelnet, of an interdisciplinary community of creative minds, though in essence as old as the world, or at least as Plato's Academia, comes from my experience in the Moscow intellectual milieu of the 1980s. I shared this experience of what we called "co-thinking" (Russian somyslie ) with such wonderful friends and colleagues as Olga Vainshtein (philologist, literary scholar), Vladimir Aristov (mathematician and poet), Boris Tseitlin (physicist and literary critic), Lyudmila Polshakova (philologist), Maria Umnova (philologist), Iosif Bakshtein (sociologist, art critic), Ilya Kabakov (artist, essayist), Ludmila Morgulis (mathematician), Vitaly Kovalev (philosopher), Igor Iakovenko (cultural scholar), Sergei Bushelev (chemist), Aleksei Mikheev (linguist) and others. Almost all of them still live in Moscow.
Together we tried to create integrated, "polyphonic" decriptions of certain cultural phenomena and to work out patterns of "translation" for different professional languages. Our activities drew an intellectual audience, in particular university students, into the process of collective intellectual creativity and writing. We conducted about 70 sessions on such various topics as "dreams,""birthdays," "silence," "limits of reason," "city and village," "punctuation marks," investigating these topics from multidisciplinary points of view (physics of dreams, lingustics of dreams, sociology of dreams, etc.). The materials of all these collective improvisations (they were always written since there was a period of silence and meditation within any discussion) are kept in my archive.
Our intellectual community, as I see it now, was a sort of pre-electronic Intelnet, and that is why I am so happy now to start the "real" Intelnet in it's much more mature, global form. I hope that what can make the Intelnet special among many intellectual sites on the Internet as the direct exposition of creative ideas. It is not like a conference or a newsgroup where discussion is led in a small and sometimes inconsistent impulses of opinions, remarks, objections. It is not like a professional journal treating some particular problems in a highly specialized language. What is crucial to the Intelnet is a specific genre of "a new idea," so pertinent to the receptiveness and responsiveness of a contemporary electronic network.
For me, the Internet is analogous to my own (and everybody's) mind, with its infinite conceptual links and associations. To explicate this imaginative nature of the Internet, as a megamind, essentially congruent with our own intellectual capacity, is what I see as the principal task of the Intelnet.
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