Introduction: Mikhail Epstein's Transcultural Visions
In the book: Mikhail Epstein. After the Future: The Paradoxes of Postmodernism and Contemporary Russian Culture(a volume in the series Critical Perspectives on Modern Culture, trans. with an introd. by Anesa Miller-Pogacar), Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1995, pp. 1-16.
i. Literary Theory and the New Focus on Culture
In the 1960s a new trend began to emerge in Russian literary philology and criticism, originating in a variety of schools that stood in tacit opposition to socialist realism, established by the Communist Party as an official methodology in the early thirties. Such writers as Iury Lotman, Viacheslav Ivanov, Georgy Gachev, Sergei Averintsev and others, while not overtly hostile to socialism as a governmental system, insisted on discussing artistic and other cultural phenomena in terms of immanent laws and functions that cannot be formulaically derived from economic structures or class relations. Drawing upon work by the Russian Formalists and their arch-opponents in the school of Mikhail Bakhtin, as well as the theories of structural semiotics, these thinkers developed a view of art as inseparable from the total cultural and communication system of a community.
The Russian Formalists, operating in small discussion groups centered in Moscow and St. Petersburg in the late 1910s and twenties, succeeded in establishing in the hearts and minds of intellectuals for generations to come recognition of the autonomy and internal integrity of art as a sphere of creative activity that must be studied independently of political, philosophical, religious and psychological considerations. Under the oppressive circumstances of their time, which silenced all critics failing to espouse socialist realism, they were not able to establish the autonomy of literary studies as a discipline. Nonetheless, they convinced many of their detractors of the need to devote attention to the internal devices and techniques that make literature a unique cultural institution.
Mikhail Bakhtin and his followers strongly criticized the Formalists' early disregard of social and ideological factors and their role in shaping artistic expression. These charges were motivated by a recognition of the strengths of the Formalists' approach and a desire to engage in debate with a more thoughtful opposition than any the orthodox Marxist critics could then offer. Before their decimation in the course of the thirties, the Bakhtin circle advanced socialistic alternatives to the increasingly rigid Bolshevik view of culture as an inert superstructure on the dynamic base of economic relations. De-emphasizing the role of individual psychology, these thinkers posited a thoroughly social ontology of language, which existed for them solely in the "interindividual territory" between and among participants in specific speech acts, or utterances. Similarly, in discussing the verbal arts, Bakhtin emphasized the mode of existence of these forms in the specific performance practices of a given community.
Between the late 1950s and the late 1970s, the Moscow-Tartu school of semiotics integrated objective methods of analysis such as those begun by the Formalists into a comprehensive theory of linguistic and cultural meaning. Structural analyses of literature were readily extended to other social phenomena, including the visual arts, myths and folklore, and games, such as chess. Gradually the semioticians developed a conception of culture as a massive network of symbolic systems that structure our perceptions of and relations to reality. This marked a decisive shift away from the isolationism of formalistic "literariness" and toward the common signifying properties of all cultural enterprises.
The term "culturology" was coined in the sixties to designate the scholarly orientation of theorists who realized the significance of uniquely artistic structures while situating them firmly within a specific cultural (and sometimes "socio-cultural") context. Literature took its place within the "system of systems," which could be accurately described only with reference to the interactions of many operational levels, from phonetics through stylistics and on to cultural history or, for some thinkers, even spirituality. While promoting the most rigorous traditions of classical European philology, culturologists also tend to espouse a post-structuralist skepticism of objectivity. Recognizing that all cultural activity, including scholarship, entails subjective and evaluative processes, many culturologists feel justified in allowing their work to express their advocacy of various cultural policies, such as tolerance of diversity or reverence for religious traditions.
Mikhail Epstein (born in 1950) is a leading representative of the young generation of thinkers who developed the culturological orientation into a loosely affiliated movement that transformed the Russian intellectual scene during the perestroika years. Despite a variety of professional setbacks, attributable to prejudice against his Jewish ethnicity and his affinity for avant-garde literature, Epstein was active in Moscow cultural life throughout the seventies and eighties. He felt that an important step toward revitalization must be to bring people together, entirely outside of institutional contexts, for collaborative reflection on all types of ideas. One of his first efforts in this direction was to organize a small group of intellectual acquaintances into an "Essayists' Club" which met regularly over a six year period beginning in the early 1980s. The varying group of five to twenty participants would select a topic for the evening, either whimsical or serious, and, after discussing it, would spend an hour or two writing down their perspectives, producing a compendium of responses to the topic, which would later be shared and discussed further.
While still involved in the Essayists' Club, Epstein helped initiate another discussion group in the mid-eighties, known as "Image and Thought." This was also a group of artists and intellectuals of various professions who gathered on a regular basis to share ideas on social and cultural issues. Rather than focusing on collaborative essays, however, this group chose as its main project the establishment of a "Bank of New Ideas and Terms," which publicized its willingness to accept for discussion and evaluation new ideas extrapolated from any field of the humanities. Those ideas found to be genuinely innovative and possessed of significant potential for productive development in society would be enrolled in the "bank" for preservation, as a type of intellectual capital. This group's activities are described in Chapter 10 of this volume.
Perhaps Epstein's largest undertaking was the organization (beginning in 1988) of a Laboratory of Contemporary Culture. He advanced the notion that culture itself is a laboratory in which scientific research should enjoy perfect freedom. Thus, new cultural movements for the future should be initiated in a laboratory setting, as a proper place to mix together diverse, even seemingly incompatible substances, or, less metaphorically, people with the various types of consciousness appropriate to their diverse walks of life. Old habits, cultural stagnation and the repression of honest interaction enforced by the political regime had tended to keep these representatives of Russian culture's multiple viewpoints isolated from one another. Accordingly, this forum sponsored a monthly program of lectures, readings and discussions on topics ranging from the Stalin cult to world religions and contemporary poetry. Numerous Moscow artists and thinkers of various backgrounds participated in these events. The Laboratory of Contemporary Culture was both an expression and a stimulus of the intellectual ferment that characterized the halcyon days of glasnost.
In his speech at the opening of the new center, Epstein asserted that "the proper place for developing new cultural directions is in a laboratory." This statement highlights what might be called the "futuristic" perspective that Epstein brings to bear on culture itself and on culturology as a discipline. The messianic, even apocalyptic quality of Epstein's thought, evident in the very title of this book, expresses itself in his emphasis on the need for creative individuals to develop new levels of consciousness and effect a renewal of cultural production, necessary in a new historical era. His writings persistently urge us to consider what cultural actions are appropriate to the end of an epoch, a millenium, or even the end of time. In this regard, it is worth noting that, in addition to the scholarly inspirations culturologists have drawn from the literary theories of the 1910s and twenties, many have looked to Russian philosophical traditions of the early century. Epstein, for example, avows an affinity with the thought of Nikolai Berdiaev, who commented that
. . . the Russian people, by its metaphysical nature and by virtue of its vocation in the world, is a people of the End. Apocalypse always played a great role on the popular level and on the high cultural level as well, among Russian writers and thinkers.
Epstein's early publications, following his graduation from the Philological Faculty of Moscow State University, were on Russian Modernist poetry, Western literature, and semiotic theory; he also catalogued a "system of landscape imagery," developed over three centuries of the Russian poetic tradition. In the mid-eighties he became the critic-champion of what he calls the first "whole generation of poets" to coalesce since the 1960s. He wrote ardently and often about the conceptualist poets, attempting to explain to readers the theoretical and aesthetic significance of verse that seemed trivial yet shocking to some, offensive and blasphemous to others. At a time when Russian traditionalists were gathering public support for the preservation of churches and other monuments of the past, Epstein came out in favor of experimentation and the creation of new monuments, worthy of preservation for the future. Members of the nationalistic Pamiat movement came to heckle and threaten Epstein at several of his public lectures. In early 1990 he was invited to teach at Wesleyan University and the following year received a research fellowship at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for scholars. Thereafter he moved to a position at Emory University which has allowed him to remain in the United States on a permanent basis.
Mikhail Bakhtin was at the height of his belated influence on the Moscow intelligentsia when Epstein was a university student in the early seventies. Like many culturologists, Epstein credits Bakhtin with a great contribution to the new understanding of culture, citing, for example, Bakhtin's emphasis on borders as an essential category in discussions of cultural phenomena, an elusive yet vital feature of any nation's (and, in another sense, any individual's) identity, establishing its distinction from all others. Epstein focuses on the internal borders that differentiate a culture from its own predominant traditions, dividing it into various age and ethnic groups, religions, economic classes, political parties and numerous other competing worldviews. As the essays in this book illustrate in an impressive variety of contexts, Epstein is concerned with the ways in which a phenomenon diverges from itself, be it a personality, a genre or style, a phase of time, even an entire national culture.
One area in which Epstein differs sharply from Bakhtin, however, is on the controversial question of culture and ideology. The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship (attributed to the co-authorship of Bakhtin and his colleague Pavel Medvedev) presents a view of ideology as both ubiquitous and political, in that it plays a key role in all acts of "social evaluation." Art is said to embody values that reveal its fundamentally ideological nature, whose relation to political and economic determinants is implicit. Culture is confined within a broad domain defined by ideology, as the following remarks indicate:
The bases of the study of ideologies (in the form of a general definition of ideological superstructures, their function in the whole of social life, their relationship to the economic base. . .) have been profoundly and firmly established by Marxism. However, the detailed study of the distinctive features and qualitative individuality of each of the branches of ideological creation--science, art, ethics, religion, etc.--is still in the embryonic stage.
Statements like these, which emphasize the social and materialist stance of the Bakhtin school, have naturally served to bolster Marxian applications of Bakhtinian theory, as pursued in the Western cultural studies movement. A different view prevails in Epstein's culturology. He argues for an alternative delineation of spheres:
Culture is something different than ideology. . . ideology is a level of culture. . .
The scope of culture is much broader and deeper than that of society as such. While society encompasses all living people in their combined activity and the interrelations of their roles, culture embraces the activity of all previous generations accumulated in artistic works, scientific discoveries, moral values, and so on. The social level is but one horizontal section of culture. . .
Taking exception to Lenin's pronouncement that, "one cannot live in a society and be free of it," Epstein argues, "but this is exactly what culture is designed for: to liberate a person from that very society in which he is doomed to live. Culture is not a product of society, but a challenge and alternative to society." He proposes restricting the term "ideology" to evaluative views expressed in specific uses of language as a calculated tactic for obtaining or enhancing political power. Such a definition serves to confine the potentially dangerous monster of ideology within the optimal field for its even-handed investigation and management, namely culture.
Epstein outlines his theory of ideological language in his study, entitled "Relativistic Patterns in Totalitarian Thinking: the Linguistic Games of Soviet Ideology," Chapter 4 of this book. Here he asserts that the only value of concern to ideology properly so-called is power: the ability to control people and events. In other words, ideology is not ubiquitous, as in Bakhtin and Medvedev's usage, but it is always political. Epstein argues that "if every evaluative component of speech is classified as ideological, then the distinction between different modes of evaluation is lost." In order to isolate and study the usage of language as a tool in the pursuit of power, he puts forth the premise that "the mission of ideology is to rule the process of communication and organize people into communities governed by specific ideas." Implicit in this delineation is his assessment that evaluations based on "personal judgments, desires, preferences and whims" seldom enter into these processes and to regard them as ideological statements only serves to obscure the workings of true power relations in language. The type of "ideolinguistic" analysis he proposes would ultimately enable scholars to identify ideological, or power-oriented, components and intentions in any type of discourse--artistic, journalistic, scientific, rhetorical--with a high degree of objective accuracy.
As a consequence of his views on ideology, Epstein takes a controversial position on the question of global postmodernism, presented in Chapter 6, "The Origins and Meaning of Russian Postmodernism." These views put him at odds with some Western theorists who consider the economic decline of capitalist systems an essential determinant of the truly postmodern condition. According to this outlook, the commodity status of all products of art and culture is a result of capitalist expansion, which is not comparable to the developmental patterns of Eastern Europe, where consumerism, cultural reification and related phenomena of late twentieth-century economy presumably did not occur, or began very recently. Epstein, however, asserts that despite vast differences in economic conditions, the underlying cultural situation in the late Soviet Union and post-Soviet republics is analogous to that of commodified Western societies.
This assertion hinges on the premise that, while consumer demand, access to capital, and other market factors appropriate to capitalism were of little relevance in the planned Soviet economy, ideological considerations acquired paramount importance in all spheres of material and cultural production. When Marxist ideology became established as the driving force of all Soviet society, Epstein maintains that it gradually relativized all possible political positions, just as Stalin opposed and then absorbed both Trotsky's leftism and Bukharin's rightism. As power was consolidated into a totalitarian system, the specific positions proper to genuine Marxism were eroded. With the same self-propelling energy exhibited by capital in its expansionist stage, totalitarianism commodified culture and ideas, bending them to serve its ideological affirmation. As a result, Epstein claims, mature Soviet ideology absorbed such a diversity of ideas that it devolved into a postmodern pastiche of political positions. Moreover, he theorizes a reversal of the classic Marxian positions of base and superstructure, arguing that in the Soviet system ideology became the base which determined a superstructure of economic activity. For this reason, Epstein advocates the culturological investigation of Soviet ideology and Western capitalist economies as analogously determining systems in relation to the production of culture.
iii. On Literature: the Aesthetics of Ideological Deconstruction
The new developments in Russian poetic language of the eighties and ninties attracted Epstein's particular attention. In Chapter 1, on "New Currents in Russian Poetry," he states that poetry serves a purifying function in culture, sloughing off deadened layers of linguistic cliche by repeating catchwords and slogans ad naseum, until their lack of true meaning becomes blatantly apparent, or by restricting the poetic lexicon to archetypal terms proper to ancient civilizations. In his many articles on the conceptualist aesthetic which predominated in Soviet underground art of the 1980s, Epstein argued that this was a quintessentially postmodern movement. In comparison to other literary trends, conceptualism provided a uniquely apt response to the hyperideologized environment of a late communist society, as Epstein describes it. Conceptualist painters and writers recognized that ideological concepts, clothed in aesthetically acceptable trappings, were omnipresent in socialist realist art works. They saw that the mission of such art was to make ideology appear true and appropriate to some external "reality," although, in the terms of postmodern theory that Epstein borrows from Jean Baudrillard, these works merely participated in the creation of an ideological "simulacrum"--a simulated copy of reality that had lost all reference to the original. By pursuing an anti-aesthetic which favors the least sophisticated modes of depiction, this movement offers, as Epstein explains, "in place of a 'work with a conception'. . . a 'conception as the work.'" Blatant rendering of the concept, as opposed to its meticulous concealment, provides a glimpse of ideological constructions in all their contrived pretentiousness.
Epstein suggests that the appeal of realistic art, which portrays the world with comprehensible clarity, as opposed to conceptual absurdity, is similar to the appeal of "metanarratives" such as Freudianism or Marxism, which purport to explain a vast array of phenomena by relating (or reducing) them to a universal principle, such as the Oedipus complex or economic class struggle. In the case of contemporary Russian literature, Epstein feels that while the noble aims of such writers as Solzhenitsyn and Shalamov are beyond reproach, their declamatory and moralistic style places their works within the tradition that produced socialist realism. This approach to writing has come to seem contaminated, even prostituted, by its former complicity with the totalitarian system. In reaction, many contemporary writers tend to favor what has been called "decentered" or "unresolved" prose, which eschews the traditionally didactic function of Russian literature.
Epstein points out that conceptual art goes so far as to defy the criterion of truth in the relationship between ideology and reality, due to the fact that ideology re-creates reality in its own image, precluding the possibility of appealing to "objective facts." Conceptual art confronts the viewer or reader with the virtual impossibility of evaluating reality, given the independence of human evaluations from any objectivity beyond themselves. Epstein sees this position as serving an important function, claiming that conceptualism actually demystifies evaluative, ideological concepts and breaks their vise grip on the mind as a necessary first step toward revitalizing artistic culture.
The essay on "Avant-Garde Art and Religion" (Chapter 2), points out that conceptual artists, like the Russian futurists before them, forsake the elevated social position of "high" art, by deliberately provoking ridicule, incredulity and scandal, through an anti-aesthetic practice which, in Epstein's view, closely resembles the self-humiliation and mockery of medieval holy fools. Epstein claims that the rejection of graceful forms and logical exposition expresses the ascendency of eternal spiritual values over the transcient pleasures of beauty. In contrast to the didactic moral statements of writers like Solzhenitsyn, however, such values cannot be proclaimed in the manner of an ordained religious leader whose tone underscores his position of authority. Rather, purported truths are ironically intoned and symbolically pantomimed in such a way as to appear to mock their own moral practice: "the art of the avant-garde again renews the feeling of crisis in all its sharpness, as when aesthetic and moral values are cast away before the Supreme Value of something strange and unthinkable." Epstein identifies this higher value as the spiritual awareness of an apocalyptic reality portrayed in visual art through the loss of material form and beauty, and in futurist "trans-sense language" or conceptualist verses as a lapse of logic and harmony, presaging the end of the world as we know it. Thus, the dross of bankrupt beliefs and prejudices is jettisoned, as if for a voyage to the shores of an as yet unknown era, although, as Epstein points out, conceptualism is virtually devoid of any utopian impulse, in contrast to the old avant-garde.
Epstein suggests that reading works of conceptual literature can have an effect almost like that of religious chanting or meditation. The "automation of perception" afforded by repetitions of banal words and phrases, or by the excessive accumulation of petty details allows not only for a "parodic deflation" of lofty, ideological notions, but also gives a sense of the unnamed reality beyond linguistic meaning. According to this view, political evaluations and stereotypes, such as those lampooned by poet Dmitry Prigov, the acknowledged master of conceptual verse, represent but the first layer of deadened consciousness that is endemic to the survivors of totalitarian stagnation. Everyday speech cliches and social conventions also dominate our thinking to a great extent, regardless of how free we believe our society to be. As Epstein says, in a statement reminiscent of the French post-structuralists, "it is not we who speak this way, this is how 'they' speak 'us.' " He suggests that post-ideological conceptual poetry, as practiced, for example, by Lev Rubinshtein, or the absurdist prose of Vladimir Sorokin or Ruslan Marsovich allow for contemplation of the silence that underlies all language. As the reader's immediate perception chants through page after page of conceptualist verbiage, the higher levels of consciousness are freed to float at liberty above the text.
In keeping with what we have called his culturological approach to literary analysis, Epstein links conceptual and other avant-gardist techniques with the spiritual climate of a post-atheist society. He points out affinities between the lapses of meaning evident in contemporary art (and in the post-communist era generally) and the quietism of Taoist and Buddhist beliefs. The appearance of such Eastern philosophical views in Russian literature is symptomatic, he believes, of "a contemporary religious need, culturally and geographically directed from West to East." In this culturological interpretation, religious inspiration may not be the poet's conscious intent, but his aesthetic (or anti-aesthetic) aspirations naturally shape the channel carved out by larger cultural forces.
Furthermore, Epstein argues in his essay on postmodernism that Russia has historically occupied a pivotal position in this global cultural shift. Tracing a long pattern of broadly conceptual tendencies, from Peter the First's "great idea" of erecting a modern city on the swamps of northern Russia, to Prince Potemkin's showcase villages, to Soviet "hyper-reality," Epstein proposes that the Russian predisposition to grant symbolic systems total freedom from material reality corresponds to Russia's balance between the Western religious outlook which emphasizes God's active presence and Eastern perspectives on absence and nothingness. Offering a new interpretation of the Scythian, or Eurasian, theme in Russian culture, Epstein theorizes that the importance of positive appearances coupled with negligible physical results represents the coexistence of Western material and institutional constructs with Eastern belief systems. The result is a culture which tends to subversively "hollow out" its own attainments. In this view, even though Russia counts numerous genuine achievements among its cultural creations, these works represent "the self-erasure of positive forms"; not the "primordial and pure emptiness" of Taoism, but a worldly self-negation which includes a reminder of otherworldly nothingness.
Implicit in these discussions is the notion that literary analysis inevitably sheds light not only on the works under immediate discussion, but on the larger cultural system as well. Culture is treated as a complex of tightly interconnected levels or types of activity, each of which is separable from the others in theory, but woven with them in one cloth of actual practice. One might well ask, whether the aim of a given research project is to discover facts about culture or about literature? Epstein shows that the two cannot be definitively separated; only the researcher's self-imposed limitations restrict the topic to one focus rather than another.
iv. The Elusive Spirit of Culture
In his discussion of art and religion, Epstein does not neglect to mention a trend in Christian theology known as the "apophatic tradition," which, he explains, eschews describing the positive qualities of the deity in favor of enumerating what it is not, thereby emphasizing the unique and incomparable nature of the divine. By outlining God's non-identity through negated attributes, such mystics as Dionysius the Areopagite left a theoretical "open space" in which the astute believer could discern something of the undefinable. The same type of procedure serves Epstein as a model not only for conceptual poetic techniques, but for larger cultural facts as well.
In Chapter 10 on "Theory and Fantasy," Epstein foresees the emergence of a remarkable range of intellectual procedures in the aftermath of restrictive Marxist practices. He argues that methodologies developed in one subject area may find fruitful application in another, just as linguistic, psychological and philosophical methods of analysis have been successfully applied to the study of literature. He feels that this trend should be extended to other fields, in recognition of the fact that, like cultures, life's phenomena have multiple aspects and cannot be fully elucidated in terms of any one of them alone. "Thus," Epstein explains, "at any given moment of cognitive inquiry, the mathematical 'highlight' may fall on literature, while the poetical one falls on the star chart, and the astronomical one falls on the genetic code, etc."
While such practices might well sacrifice the pristine orderliness of existing academic fields, it is for the cause of bringing them into closer contact with each other. Epstein gives this "meta-methodology" the name "continualism" because it is premised on the notion of an indivisible continuum of existence, which intellectual culture strives to comprehend. Rather then dividing reality into discrete elements and defining fields of inquiry as restricted territories of narrow specialization, "continualism" would encourage scholars to focus on the contributions their areas could make to other fields. Without abolishing the depth of expertise necessary to each given discipline, such an approach would focus on broad questions demanding multiple perspectives, so that, in the "apophatic" manner, each could contribute a segment of the outline within which reality might manifest increasingly comprehensible attributes.
In pondering the relevance of theology to the study of culture and to Epstein's thought in particular, it may be worthwhile returning to the question of Mikhail Bakhtin's influence on the development of Russian culturology. The ongoing controversy in Western Slavistics and cultural studies over the relevance of Bakhtin's religious beliefs for his theoretical work testifies to the subtlety of expression Bakhtin was able to give to his most pervasive ideas. Epstein follows a similar strategy of appealing to broadly "spiritual" values that lend themselves to a variety of interpretations. For example, where Bakhtin meditates on a "unified truth that requires a plurality of consciousnesses," which lends itself to being read as a metaphor for God's creation of thinking human beings, Epstein discusses the potential "transcultural world," which he describes as a collective state of awareness involving a plurality of cultural expressions.
Epstein has explained that he was among a small group of students in Vladimir Turbin's literary seminar at Moscow University who had an opportunity to meet with Bakhtin in the early 1970s. Recalling this meeting, Epstein comments that the elderly Bakhtin seemed determined to turn away from all "serious questions about life" and specifically about religion, which, in Epstein's opinion, should have been addressed as a matter of course in discussing Dostoevsky's poetics, for example. Instead of responding directly to questions on such matters, Epstein reports that Bakhtin answered "apophatically," translating such issues "into professional matters, into literature." This tactic of deflecting one topic onto another was successful not only in avoiding the religious controversies of the difficult decades which Bakhtin managed to survive, but clearly increased the semantic potential of his own works, giving them "variable interpretability" (to borrow a term from Victor Shklovsky) to the extent that today Bakhtin's thought inspires scholars of diverse persuasions in Russia as well as the West.
Several points of contact between Epstein's thought and Bakhtin's are readily apparent, for instance, the discussion of "outsideness" in Chapter 9. A subtle but more pervasive example is the notion of 'potential,' on which Bakhtin focused in the last years of his life, explaining that great artistic works accrue more profound meaning over time, thanks to their innate semantic potential. Bakhtin said that such works "live . . . in great time," acquiring a kind of cultural immortality.
In Chapter 7, "At the Crossroads of Image and Concept," Epstein focuses on the significance of potential as a special quality of certain kinds of writing, particularly what he calls the "self-substantiation" of the author in essayistic genres. Here, he feels, we observe the writer in a process of unfolding a unique and singular intellectual existence. Refering to Montaigne's works as prototypical of the genre, Epstein observes that the essayist's contemplations on a chosen subject are intrinsically relativistic, as a variety of bases for a given opinion are explored, interlarding the essay with rich potentials for alternative lines of thought. In his view, "essayization" offers a more radical type of creative potentiality than does "novelization" as discussed in Bakhtin's well-known works.
Epstein also argues for the significance of potential as an element in all cultural enterprises, deserving of recognition and investigation virtually on a par with accomplished fact. He has suggests, for example, that the interdisciplinary approach of cultural studies has the potential to foster hitherto unsuspected interconnections among the traditional disciplines. Further, he asserts that heightened cultural consciousness offers awareness of "the unity of all cultures and all non-cultures, of all possibilities that have never been realized in existing cultures."
Here again is a schematic expression of the apophatic procedure whereby a sum of non-identities helps to describe an elusive phenomenon. As Dionysius the Areopagite allowed a hint of the divine to resonate in the empty space between God's negative attributes, so does a sense of something universal emerge from the potential space that Epstein calls transculture.
v. Culturology and Transculture
Epstein proposes continualism as a meta-methodology for interconnecting the humanitarian disciplines and unifying their intellectual missions under the rubric of culturology. In his seminal exposition of this "umbrella" discipline in Chapter 9, "Culture--Culturology--Transculture," he emphasizes that although culturology investigates numerous specific and specialized areas, it is primarily "called upon to realize the ideal of cultural wholeness." This ideal is seen as providing the integrating matrix within which isolated parts congeal by extending their arenas of self-consciousness to incorporate one another into a unified, collective entity. Furthermore, Epstein believes that--not unlike essayism in writing--this integrative cultural self-consciousness can serve as a prophylactic against the monomania of totalitarianism and the schizophrenia of atomized individualism. In other words, the interdisciplinary practice of cultural studies should allow the diverse compartments within a single culture to overcome their limitations and negative potentials through awareness of their common aspirations and interdependencies.
Culturology discloses gaps within an established culture, as Epstein's analysis of conceptual poetry discloses the gaps between ideologically colored portrayals of life in Soviet society and the actual material conditions that people experienced. In anthropological terms, such gaps exist, for example, among diverse marital practices, such as American and European serial monogamy, Islamic polygyny and Tibetan polyandry. Epstein calls culturology an "egalitarian science" because it generates knowledge of these alternatives as equally valid creative solutions to the problem of organizing human life; it records the range of their variability.
He introduces another concept to account for the ideal of cultural wholeness. Transculture, described as "a multi-dimensional space which appears gradually over the course of historical time," is a notion that lays claim to both material and ideal embodiments in the real world, according to Epstein's system of thought. Transculture is presented not as a field of knowledge, but as a type of consciousness or mentality capable of envisioning the as yet unrealized potentials of existing cultures. A realm accessible only to thought, the transcultural world is nonetheless present "within all existing cultures." It might be defined as the set of all real cultural achievements, past and present, along with all of their potential developments.
In discussing the origins of transcultural consciousness as a type of postmodern mentality, Epstein focuses on the internal splits occasioned by counter-cultural movements in both the industrialized West and behind the Iron Curtain. Dissidents, sectarians and underground artists in the former Soviet Union, as well as hippies, punks, and other disaffected youth groups in both the East and West attempted to locate themselves outside established norms, creating through their lifestyles and artistic practices "zones of emptiness," which had no place in the predominant systems of their societies. The very possibility that such zones could exist, rendered aspects of the dominant culture "meaningless," weakening its hold on the minds of its people by demonstrating the viability of alternative ways of life. As more and more individuals, in various parts of the world, find themselves outside the obsolescent categories accepted in their societies, unable to identify themselves fully with standard models of behavior, the ideal condition of transculture obtains its being, in Epstein's understanding, through the fullness of newly conceived potentials. For the new Russian society, this is one manifestation of what Epstein identifies as the growth of new spiritual perspectives in a post-atheist society.
Epstein indicates that the self-awareness that culturology offers to culture, which in turn allows for the development of transcultural consciousness, also provides protection from "totalitarian temptations": no individual culture can claim to offer the "only way" to live or to think when its members are well-informed about alternatives. This contrast with totalitarianism is tempered by a similarity, however: while totalitarianism makes all cultural practices and political positions relative with respect to its own lust for power, Epstein explains that in the transcultural world, "all specific cultures /are/ relative with regard to something transcendental." So while both totalitarian and transcultural modes of thought challenge absolutist beliefs, the former destroys culture by restricting its creative arena, but the latter safeguards it by "opening gaps" in the will to power that presses culture into compliant ideological service. Transcultural awareness allows us to conceive alternatives to the lock-step mechanisms of totalitarian thinking with its black and white judgments; it implies a suspension of judgment, in that it favors no one tradition over another. In Epstein's description, transculture preserves an attitude of respect and even love for earthbound, traditional cultures, while liberating individuals from the compelling, often chauvinistic attachment to native ways that totalitarian consciousness retains and exploits. We have the option of realizing unity and wholeness in the freedom of transcultural consciousness, just as we have the ability to enshrine one way of life above all others in the restrictive obsessions of totalitarianism.
The importance of imaginable potentials is nowhere more evident in Epstein's thought than in his vision of a spiritualized human ecology transformed through the detached yet reverent attitudes of transculture. In Chapter 8, "Thing and Word: On the Lyrical Museum," Epstein explores the fates of such cultural by-products and rejects as candy wrappers, broken toys and other everyday objects that have lost their original usefulness. In the process of lavishing descriptive and contemplative attention on such items, he suggests that even the world's most humble objects have the potential to develop a unique and undefinable identity of their own, while simultaneously serving to establish the cultural and personal identity of the human subject who makes use of them. In a remarkable recasting of Freud's ideas about an ego and its objects as the fundamental opposition that institutes selfhood, Epstein conveys a tangible sense of the intimate connections between a person and the material things in his or her immediate environment. This view echoes the proposed definition of culture as "everything humanly created that simultaneously creates a human being"; it invests the humblest objects with a significance far beyond the recognition they normally receive. Indeed, Epstein accords physical objects such a central role in creating our humanity, that he argues they possess an integrity of being perhaps as remotely comparable to that of a person or a society as these are to the integrity of a divine being. It would seem that we are equally free to endow the objects around us in cultural settings with soulful animacy as we are to commodify them, erasing all self-sufficient value from their being. The respect toward things that Epstein outlines here would be capable of redefining the ecology of our physical and social environment.
Rather than disposable products of alienating labor, things can thus become participants in transcultural consciousness, as our human subjectivity overflows to encompass the very objects which for Freud's modernist psychology were the inaugural other. Astonishing as such ideas may well appear, it is not my intention to overemphasize their visionary character at the expense of their practical and scholarly value. New conceptions of identity, difference, and unity are essential to describe the new world order in which basic understandings of self and other have been cast in doubt on global and personal levels. In Mikhail Epstein's words, "To define the patterns of . . . unity based on pluralistic values should be . . . the most immediate aim of the contemporary humanities." Such an assertion clearly calls on scholars to broaden the scope of serious inquiry even as we advocate a cultural life worthy of a future in the new millenium.
See Victor Erlich, Russian Formalism: History. Doctrine (The Hague: Mouton, 1965), especially Ch. XI, "Marxism Versus Formalism."
V. N. Voloshinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, trans. Ladislav Matejka and I. R. Titunik (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1973), especially Chapter 1: "signs can arise only in interindividual territory" (p. 12). See also Michael Holquist, ed., The Dialogic Imagination: 4 Essays by M. M. Bakhtin (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), "Epic and Novel," especially 13-15.
"System of systems" is a description coined in Iury Tynianov and Roman Jakobson's 1929 essay "Problems in the Study of Literature and Language," available in translation in Ladislav Matejka and Krystyna Pomorska, eds., Readings in Russian Poetics: Formalist and Structuralist Views (Ann Arbor: Michigan Slavic Publications, 1978).
Mikhail Epstein, "Kul'turologiia: zadachi i vozmozhnosti (k otkrytiiu Laboratorii sovremennoi kul'tury)" [Culturology: tasks and potentials (for the opening of the Laboratory of Contemporary Culture)], lecture presented in Moscow, March 26, 1988. Some of these remarks were later published in Mikhail Epstein, "Govorit' na iazyke vsekh kul'tur" [To speak the language of all cultures], Nauka i zhizn', 1990, no. 1: 100-103. Portions of this speech are reproduced in Chapter 9 of the present volume.
Nikolai Berdiaev, Russkaia ideia [The Russian Idea] (Paris: YMCA Press, 1946), p. 195.
M. M. Bakhtin/P. N. Medvedev, The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship, trans. Albert Wehrle (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985), 3.
Ellen Berry, Kent Johnson and Anesa Miller-Pogacar, "An Interview With Mikhail Epstein," in Common Knowledge, vol. 2, no. 3, forthcoming; p. 10 in manuscript.
See Chapter 9 of this volume, "Culture--Culturology--Transculture."
Mikhail Epstein, personal letter to this author, July 23, 1992.
For example, while Fredric Jameson seldom comments on the "Second World" per se, he indicates that incomplete modernization should preclude postmodern development as a cultural phenomenon. See "Postmodernism and Utopia," in "Boston Institute of Contemporary Art Publications" (March 1988): 12-13. See also Frederic Jameson, Chapter 10 "Secondary Elaborations," in Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991), 297-418, especially 314 and 381.
Helena Goscilo, Introduction to Glasnost: An Anthology of Literature Under Gorbachev, co-edited with Byron Lindsey (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1990), xxxi-xlv.
The conceptualists whom Epstein discusses are exclusively male.
Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, trans. Caryl Emerson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 81.
Mikhail Epstein, personal letter to this author, July 23, 1992.
Bakhtin's 1970 interview with the journal Novyi mir is devoted to this topic. See "Response to a Question from Novy mir," in M. M. Bakhtin, Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, ed. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, trans, Vern McGee (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986).
Mikhail Epstein, personal interview with this author, May 3, 1990.