THE SEMIOTICS OF AUGUST IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY: THE IMPACT OF GLOBAL CATACLYSMS ON EVERYDAY PRACTICES
New Literary Observer celebrates its twentieth anniversary by presenting a comparative interdisciplinary study entitled "The Semiotics of August in the Twentieth Century."
This special issue is a continuation of a large-scale NLO project that aims to employ an anthropological perspective in re-evaluating the processes of transformation in modern societies, formulate new approaches to studying history, and elaborate a new, productive paradigm for stimulating further developments in the humanities and social sciences.
This special issue explores the extent to which the life of the individual has fundamentally changed as a result of global cataclysms in the Twentieth century — as a result of world wars, intellectual, social and technological revolutions, and the geopolitical reshaping of the world.
The "short" Twentieth century, according to Eric Hobsbawm, began in August 1914 and ended in August 1991. Upon closer inspection, we see that, during the last century, August constituted a profoundly symbolic time (especially for Russia): many events of deep importance, defining watersheds in history, took place in that very month. With reference to well-known dates, we can present the following basic periodization of the Twentieth century:
1. August 1914: the beginning of the First World War
2. August 1939: the beginning of the Second World War
3. August 1945: the end of the Second World War, atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
4. August 1968: the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia; student unrest in Europe
5. August 1991: the disintegration of the Communist bloc
While acknowledging the conditional nature of this periodization, we nevertheless regard it as a useful tool for realizing the basic aim of our investigation.
Our task is to test the validity of the generally accepted opinion that the beginning of the First World War marked the end of the belle epoque and a radical break with modern European society's existing value system and way of life.
Our particular interest in "Augusts" as acmes of social bifurcation in the twentieth century was dictated by our conviction that it is at such moments of civilizational collapse that the hidden framework of culture reveals itself—that is, the entire intricate system of customary lifestyles and values-based practices hit hardest by change. In their attempt to re-establish a disintegrated sense of continuity, individuals try to reconstruct the traditional order of things while at the same time inevitably reformulating and transforming tradition itself.
We attempt to analyze how, in desperate attempts to normalize their lives amidst the global cataclysms of the Twentieth century, individuals gave meaning to and recreated their existence within a broad network of personal and social ties. We examine changes in:
* individual and collective memory
* everyday practices, lifestyle, habitat
* beliefs, ethical values and behavioral models
* boundaries between public and private spheres
* forms of social stratification and mobility
* individual and collective identity
* intellectual and artistic reflection
Our "August" project also raises a number of important questions we will continue to investigate in our further studies:
* In what areas of the individual's life did the most radical changes take place?
* Where did customary ways of life remain unchanged despite global catastrophes and revolutionary breakthroughs?
* What is the correlation between "losses" and "gains"?
* What are the differences in the new experience of life between people in "open" and "closed" societies?
* How do documents from this period traditionally used by researchers reflect the depth and essence of the changes?
ON THE THRESHOLD OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
Aleida Assmann (University of Konstanz, Germany) addresses the dramatic reconfiguration of our temporal orientation that has occurred over the last decades in her article "Transformations of the Modern Time Regime." She introduces the term "cultural time regime" to refer to a specific temporal ordering of past, present and future that provides uncontested meaning and orientation for a given society. It is so deeply entrenched that it does not rise to the level of conscious reflection. In a time of crisis, however, it becomes visible and can be retrospectively reconstructed and revised. She argues that the modern time regime, which had vigorously supported western thought and action until the 1980s, has met with a severe crisis and is now undergoing considerable change. Historical analysis shows that this modern time regime was exclusively focused on the future while simultaneously being dismissive or oblivious of the past. Today, the future has lost much of its allure and can no longer serve as the vanishing point of wishes, goals and projections. The past, however, has become more and more important in politics, society and the arts, with the effect that it has been reopened and re-inspected from different points of view and in connection with various agendas. The essay argues that the return of a forgotten or hitherto rejected past has something to do with periods of excessive violence in the twentieth century and earlier times. This burden of the past, which still weighs heavily on the shoulders of the present, reappears in the modes of both nostalgia and trauma, confronting us with the new experience that the past is not over and done with once and for all, but open to reconstruction and reassessment, demanding new attention and recognition, the accepting of responsibility, and forms of remembrance.
In his article "Sevastopol in August 1855: War, Photography and Surgery," Ilya Kalinin (Neprikosnovennyj Zapas Magazine, Saint Petersburg) identifies and describes the various modes of vision that define the cultural foundations of the modern era. The emergence of new technical means of visual representation such as photography was also accompanied by a change in the poetical optics at work in literature. The beginning of a new era (the mid nineteenth century) can be described via the collision of the romantic canon, based on emotionally rich painterly imagery, with a new poetics that sought to achieve the "objective," realistic recording of reality to which photography, recently invented, laid claim. The Crimean War and Leo Tolstoy's early stories are examined in the article as the space where these two poetics and their concomitant optical modes collided.
THE INTELLECTUAL LANDSCAPE AFTER THE BATTLE
"Alexandre Kojeve, the Origin of 'Anti-Humanism,' and the 'End of History,'" by Stefanos Geroulanos (New York University), deals with Alexandre Kojeve's account of the "end of history," developed in his lectures on Hegel's Philosophy of History in Paris during the late 1930s, an account that remains more often taken for granted than seriously historicized. Little critical and historical attention has been paid to conceptual reasons behind Kojeve's advocacy of it, and even less to the way in which it evolved in his own project during the 1930s, up to its notable presentation during his famous final lecture in August 1939. The purpose of this essay is to link the trajectory of Kojeve's participation in the burgeoning anti-humanism of the 1930s with the evolution of his thought on matters of history, man's place in it (notably, his "negative anthropology"), and the different forms of the "end of history" he described in the late 1930s and early 1940s. This essay includes a modified version of sections six and seven of the third chapter of Geroulanos's book An Atheism That Is Not Humanist (Stanford University Press, 2010), reproduced with permission from the Stanford University Press.
The essay by Sergey Zenkin (Russian State University for the Humanities) is entitled "Georges Bataille: Politics on a Universal Scale." In August 1944, as he was witnessing the battles for the liberation of France, Georges Bataille noted in his diary that the Second World War was "a war of transcendence against immanence." He interpreted the politics of the world powers in those terms both then and later. Nazi Germany thus represented for him a self-transcending mediocrity, attempting to become heroic by means of military and bureaucratic "machinery"; the United States, with the Marshall Plan, disavowed the transcendental principles of the capitalist economy in favor of an immanent, i.e., profitless expenditure of wealth; inversely, the Soviet Union gave up its primary revolutionary immanence but acquired that of a predatory animal, which through its aggressiveness provoked the west into sacrificial, non-accumulative actions on a grand scale. Only a neutral observer, Bataille claimed, could appreciate such profound processes: standing aloof from the transcendent activities of states and attaining the immanence of self-consciousness, he becomes a "mad" person. This, according to Bataille, was the destiny of the modern intellectual.
In "Memory and Oblivion: Theodor Adorno and the Time 'After Auschwitz,'" Valery Podoroga (Institute of Philosophy, Russian Academy of Sciences) explores certain consequences of the question posed by Adorno half a century ago: is it possible to think, write poems or even to live after Auschwitz? The tragic experience of the Holocaust does not involve the search for "true" place for thought or establishment of a positive utopia, as was the case in classical systems of philosophical thought from Descartes and Hegel to Heidegger. Adorno's utopia is purely negative. (He defines his method as a "negative dialectics.") Since western culture has forfeited all moral values, it is only in despair that one can find hope for Otherness, and only in despair that one can think. Contemporary philosophy, however, cannot cope with this task, and the only hope lies in the art of the contemporary avant-garde (Beckett, Klee, Kafka).
THE EXPERIENCE OF TRAUMA
This section opens with an essay by Polina Barskova (Hampshire College), "The August That Wasn't and the Mechanism of Calendrical Trauma: Reflections on Siege Chronologies." How was the idea of "presentness" perceived and transformed during the Siege of Leningrad (1941—1944)? How did the calendar's structure define such social categories as fear, shame and understanding of self? This article explores notions of historical knowledge in relation to calendrical time, as revealed by various texts produced in the besieged city. While for contemporary consciousness the notion of "Siege time" is usually perceived through the months of its first deadly winter, in her research Barskova aims to evaluate how blokadniki (the besieged citizens) understood their situation during other crucial periods of the Siege — for example, the summer of 1941 and the spring of 1942. Calendar time was measured and depicted differently by various ideological registers; the difference between these approaches defines the central direction of the reading. For her analysis, Barskova uses both official discursive texts and films, as well as texts never intended for publication. Among the authors whose texts are included in her reading are Lydia Ginzburg, Roman Karmen, Vsevolod Vishnevsky and Elena Mukhina.
In the article "What Remains of Witness: The 'Memorization' of Trauma in the Work of Olga Bergholz," Sergei Zavyalov (University of Zurich) uses the classic Soviet poet Olga Bergholz (1910—1975) to explore the peculiarities of how trauma was both perceived and rejected by Soviet heroic consciousness, one of whose fundamental qualities was the exclusion of everything having to do with human frailty from public discussion. Soviet individuals refused to recognize themselves as victims and "memorize" what had happened to them as an irreparable trauma. We see the dramatic conflict that arises between this rejection and the poet's natural inclination to articulate internal traumas. In Zavyalov's view, Bergholz's socialist realism, which lied to itself and others in the desperate attempt to maintain its heroic stance, is a more adequate witness to a catastrophe (the Siege of Leningrad) that transported the individual beyond psychology and intellect than the subtle psychologism and profound intellectua- lism of another classic Siege author, Lydia Ginzburg. Whereas Ginzburg writes from the viewpoint of someone who knows, is able to comprehend and is capable of telling what happened, Bergholz mostly confronts us with the impossibility and insufficiency of storytelling as a form of witness.
In their essay "Severed Voices: Radio and the Mediation of Trauma in the Eichmann Trial," Amit Pinchevski (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) and Tamar Liebes (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) consider the role of radio in the mediation of trauma during the 1961 Eichmann trial. They argue that radio broadcasts from the courtroom occasioned a transformation in the status of Holocaust survivors in Israel, who had been previously seen as deeply traumatized, unable or unwilling to speak about their experiences. Taking to the airwaves facilitated a shift in the conditions in which survivors' testimonies could find public articulation. As such, the Eichmann trial provides a compelling case of the significance of media in transforming private traumas into collective or cultural trauma.
The article by Christine Leuenberger (Cornell University), "Building Walls in August: Psychological Constructions of the Berlin Wall and the West Bank Barrier," problematizes the psychological discourse on borders. Since the rise of nation-state in the nineteenth century, borders have been a prominent geographical feature. At different times, psychologists have used "borders" to think about various psychological conditions and cultural differences. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, it seemed that a new era of open geographical spaces and unprecedented mobility had replaced an ideologically divided world. However, since 1990, over twenty-four "strategic barriers," frequently constructed along national borders, have been built or proposed across the globe. Yet how has psychology been used to think about the psychological impact of barriers? This paper traces how psychologists have used the Berlin Wall and the West Bank Barrier as "evocative objects" to reflect on societies, cultures and psychologies. At different times, the Berlin Wall has become an "object to think with" as it aided in understanding and reifying various psychological conditions, cultural divergences and national typologies. Israeli and Palestinian psychologists have also used the West Bank Barrier to evoke psychological states and reflect on clashing cultures and "civilizations." While Berliners continue to talk about the post-1989 "mental wall" that, allegedly, describes the persistent cultural gap between East and West Germany, the physical infrastructure that constitutes the West Bank Barrier also serves as an evocative object that signifies and reifies perceptions of cultural and ethnic disparities across the region.
The section continues with an essay by Kevin M.F. Platt (University of Pennsylvania), "The Affective Poetics of 1991: Nostalgia and Trauma on Lubyanka Square." August 1991 inscribed an epochal divide in the Russian experience of time. Echoing this split in the temporal horizon, two modes dominate affective access to Soviet history in contemporary Russian public discourse: the modes of trauma and nostalgia. One may mourn Soviet traumas—the repressions, camps, murders and lack of freedoms. Alternately, one may wax nostalgic over the values, food, clothes, innocence and idealism. In contemporary Russian public discourse, both of these modes tend to support all-encompassing political and evaluative positions with regard to the Soviet past, which appears as a single and unified field of historical experience. Yet neither mode is adequate to grapple with the complex tasks of making sense of the past or comprehending political and cultural legacies in the present. In his essay, Platt focuses on the history of a landmark Moscow building, the Central Children's World department store, and on current public debates concerning its reconstruction. His analysis locates this material in the context of "neighboring" problems of history and memory regarding Lubyanka Square, where the building is located, but which also once was the location of KGB headquarters and the well-known monument to its founder Felix Dzerzhinsky. This makes possible an examination of the intersections and divides between nostalgic and traumatic discourse concerning the Soviet past, revealing the relationship between nostalgia and trauma to be one of mutual interference, preventing both affective projects from coming to terms with history and its contemporary significance. Ultimately, Platt argues that the affective poetics of Soviet history and memory are in need of a fundamental revision, one that intentionally reunites nostalgia and trauma in a complex manner in order to overcome the seeming epochal divide of 1991 and to inscribe difference and variability, multiple levels of continuity and discontinuity, as a new basis for social understanding and consensus.
"The Riskiest Moment: Kafka and Freud," by Mladen Dolar (University of Ljubljana), examines the moment of waking, which features so prominently in many of Kafka's novels and stories. Awakening entails the encounter of something that no longer belongs to the logic of dreams and does not yet belong to the constituted reality of waking life. Kafka's heroes seem stuck on the verge between protracted nightmare and the struggle for wakefulness. Something appears on this verge that can be seen as a strange ontological opening to new experience. Kafka calls awakening the "riskiest moment," where it takes great presence of mind to get through it without being dragged out of place. This strange encounter is then considered from the viewpoint of Freud's interpretation of dreams, as a moment that lies beyond the realm of interpretation, and further linked to what Jacques Lacan has called the logic of the missed encounter. This moment is situated in the broader perspective of the emergence of modernity, as its peculiar wake-up call, and considered in relation to some of its other prominent figures (Proust, Duchamp, Malevich, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, etc.).
In recent years, personal accounts purporting to provide evidence of the Soviet experience (diaries, memoirs, etc.) have been appearing in print in large numbers. Many of them contain dreams; most of these dreams have political content. In her article "Dreams of Terror: Dreams as a Source for the History of Stalinism," Irina Paperno (University of California, Berkeley) provides interpretations of such dreams. Following such authors as Reinhold Koselleck, who has written about dreams from Nazi Germany, Paperno argues that dreams, long recognized as a historical phenomenon, may be of particular interest to historians of terror regimes. While the article reflects on methodological issues and on theories of dreams, the emphasis is on a close reading of dream stories from Stalinist Russia. The author asks what dreams mean to those who chose to record them and include them in their larger narratives, and what they mean to us, their distant readers. The answers are many and varied.
"Breakthrough at Stalingrad: The Repressed Soviet Origins of a Bestselling West German War Tale," by Jochen Hellbeck (Rutgers University), delves into the concealed origins of a famous German memoir on the Battle of Stalingrad, published in 1957. Its author, Heinrich Gerlach, a veteran of the battle and former Soviet POW, claimed to have recovered the memory of his wartime experience through hypnosis, after the original script, which he wrote in captivity, was confiscated by Soviet authorities. The original manuscript has now been
found in a Russian archive. It reveals how Soviet political re-education efforts prompted Gerlach to compose an autobiography revolving around questions of personal complicity and guilt in German wartime crimes. Gerlach later expunged these soul-searching passages, as well as any reference to the Soviet origins of his memoir, from the published memoir, which he presented as a self-generated inquiry into the tragedy of German soldiers abandoned by Hitler.
In "War Memoirs of the Dead: Writing and Remembrance in the First World War," Victoria Stewart (University of Leicester) considers a peculiar genre of First World War-era English literature via two works, Oliver Lodge's Raymond, or Life and Death, and Marie Leighton's Boy of My Heart. War memoirs of the dead, which were usually not intended for the general reader, were a special means of coping with trauma. In these books, recollections of the dead were combined with a scholarly apparatus and various commentaries (among other things, the posthumous fate of the dead was touched on, for example, through descriptions of seances). Publications of this sort helped survivors cope with the trauma of loss and realize that the sacrifices were not in vain.
Over three turbulent decades — from the end of the First World War to the period after the Second World War — Germans buried their dead, mourned their passing and imagined what forms of existence they might have beyond the grave. In her essay "Death in Germany between Two World Wars," Monica Black (University of Tennessee) examines the various practices surrounding mortality in Germany over this period, including funerals and other rituals of burial and mourning, and the evolving set of cultural perceptions that gave meaning to those practices. Because the practices of death are embedded within a complex and eternally shifting web of values, attitudes, symbols, images and sensibilities, Black argues, they offer insights into the normally unspoken and often unrecorded moral codes that defined and redefined German society and became the basis for its continual transformation in a highly unstable period marked by peace and war, democracy and dictatorship.
In "'Exceptionally Normal' and the Normalization of the Exceptional: Self- Censorship in the Memory of a German Family Forcibly Deported to the Soviet Union," Igor Narsky (South Ural State University, Chelyabinsk) uses a unique document — corrections made by an interviewee to a transcript of her family's story as told by her — to problematize the use of non-traditional sources and discuss the changes (and the stubborn resistance to change) in the family relations, memory and behavioral models of "ordinary" people in the twentieth century.
In "Iron August, or Double-Use Memory," Alexander Etkind (University of Cambridge) explores manifestations of memory and mourning in Russian literature, historiography and popular culture. Focusing on several examples — Nikolai Zabolotsky's "Iron August"; Iulian Oksman's re-publication of Belinsky's letter to Gogol; Grigory Kozintsev's screen adaptations of Shakespeare's tragedies; and the five-hundred-ruble banknote still in use — the essay shows how mourning for the victims of the Soviet period has been at the forefront of Russian culture.
The essay by Mikhail Ryklin (Institute of Philosophy, Russian Academy of Sciences) is entitled "'The Jews — Who Are They?': The Structure of the Concept of 'Jew.'" When they took in Soviet Jews, German authorities attempted to translate something emotionally charged — a sense of responsibility for the monstrous crimes of National Socialism — into legal language. The resulting translation was
quite problematic: the Jews were given the status of refugees, which clearly did not fit them. In addition, it came to light that, from the viewpoint of the host country, "Jew" was not an ethnic concept, but a religious one: a Jew is someone who professes Judaism. Soviet Jews, especially the older generation, regarded themselves not as victims of the Holocaust, but as people who had defeated the Third Reich. The impression arose that they had no memory of the Holocaust; that this was the heritage of German, Polish and French Jews, but not of Soviet Jews, although over a million of the victims were their direct relatives. However, Holocaust amnesia in the Soviet Union was neither an original nor a voluntary phenomenon. Memory of this event was seared out with a hot iron, and its place was taken (later, though, under Brezhnev) by the ideology of the Great Victory, with which the victims of this historical substitution identify.
LOST ILLUSIONS: THE COLLAPSE OF THE UTOPIAN PROJECT
The section opens with excerpts from Zinaida Denisievskaya's diary, edited by Jochen Hellbeck (Rutgers University). Denisievskaya was a provincial Russian woman who kept a diary during the first third of the Twentieth century. In an accompanying article, Hellbeck traces Denisievskaya's gradual transition from a cautious attitude towards the Bolsheviks to self-identification with the Soviet regime, as well as the role of gender in this transition.
In an essay from October 1988 entitled "The Presumption of Socialism," published here for the first time, Lydia Ginzburg explains why the liberal intelligentsia should support Gorbachev's reforms. At the same time, she acknowledges that the socialist system goes "against human nature," and exposes the hypocrisy and illogicality of the political rhetoric of Gorbachev and his allies. In an introductory article, "Ginzburg and Perestroika," Andrei Zorin (University of Oxford) and Emily van Buskirk (Rutgers University) analyze Ginzburg's intellectual and ideological stance during the final years of her life, both in relation to her creative trajectory and to the political events unfolding rapidly around her.
In "The End of a Beautiful Era: Soviet Intellectuals' Reception of the Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia," Nikolay Poselyagin (Moscow State University) examines the date August 21, 1968, as the symbolic designation of a certain finale. He hypothesizes that this finale (at least on the epistemological level) had to do with the era of positivist utopianism, whose final surge in the Soviet Union, as in the rest of the world, took place in the 1960s, but was violently crushed. (In other countries, it also came to a dramatic end, albeit not so artificially.) Poselyagin understands utopianism as a focus on a particular predetermined ideal, which is simultaneously regarded as such and, nevertheless, postulated as something fundamentally attainable.
THE ANTHROPOLOGY OF SOCIAL PSYCHOSIS
In "Augusterlebnis: The Beginning of the First World War as a Turning Point in German History," Frithjof Benjamin Schenk (University of Basel) examines the particular fervor that the German people, according to most historians, experienced in the early days of August 1914, as the war began. Using German newspapers, Schenk traces how it was perceived in the early years of the war and attempts to show that the traditional interpretation of this event as a moment of national community and general enthusiasm is in much need of revision.
This essay is followed by Andrei Zhdanov's notorious report of August 16, 1946, which preceded the infamous Central Committee decree "On the Journals 'Zvezda' and 'Leningrad.'" In his commentary, Pyotr Druzhinin (Moscow) examines the report in the context of the political atmosphere in the postwar Soviet Union, arguing that it was a symbol of the turn towards a bipolar world, at least on the ideological front.
In his article "The Party Organization of the Stalin Plant Has Been Gripped by Psychosis..." Oleg Leibovich (Perm State Institute of Art and Culture) uses archival materials to reconstruct the conflict between an engineer/Communist Party member, on the one hand, and the authorities, on the other. The place of the conflict: a brand-new enterprise for the manufacture of aviation motors, Plant No. 19 in Perm. The subject of the conflict: the right to a personal interpretation of people and events, contested by the Party organization. The time of the conflict: the repressive ideological campaign in August 1936 (the Trial of the Sixteen in Moscow). The content of the conflict was determined by a clash of two cultures: rational and individualistic, on the one hand, and patrimonial, on the other. Common sense confronted ideological formulas and was defeated.
In "Tender August, or the Forced Metaphor," Gasan Guseinov (Moscow State University) examines a situation in which generational memory and the impersonal memory of the native speaker converge when a word or phrase emerges in the stream of poetic speech, animating personal memory. He analyzes one of the forced associations that arise in such cases, the semantic line "tenderness," using Anton Makarenko's "A Book for Parents." Understood now as the basis of the educator's relationship to the student, now as the quality of an edible product, "tenderness" evokes a complex set of forced associations, which is part of the discourse of how "August(us)" — the harvest month and the name of the founder of the empire that served as Russia's prototype — is experienced.