On Valery Podoroga: Reflecting on the years of our friendship…
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On Valery Podoroga: Reflecting on the years of our friendship…
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Susan Buck-Morss 
Cornell University
Georgetown University
Address: United States, New York

This essay remembers Valery Podoroga, whom I knew during the years of transition from Soviet to post-Soviet Russia. The details of our fortuitous meeting in Moscow in 1987 are chronicled in my book, Dreamworld and Catastrophe (2000), when we shared an interest in the early cinema of Eisenstein and Vertov, and a conviction that sensory experience — aesthetics in the general sense of the word — was the entryway to philosophizing. Podoroga translated these techniques of image-perception into a totally original, philosophical way of reading literature. Mimesis, his major work, contains reflections on the novels of Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Platonov, and others, analysing the sensory quality of these texts in order to feel bodily the transitory worlds that they created. Podoroga reads Platonov as embodying the rapid industrialization and agricultural collectivisation of high-Stalinism, a mimetic response that leads to the “de-anthropologisation” of experience. Mimesis describes how the bursting of literary forms culminates in the revolutionary consciousness of the avant-garde. Podoroga’s relation to Marx, who was a monumental figure in his childhood, differed from that of his predecessors (Lukacs, Lifschitz and others), and had affinities to Derrida’s reading of Marx’s “ghosts”. He considered the new, “glamorous” Marxism of the younger generation (editors of Stasis) as quite comfortably bourgeois and cautions that the equality of socialism was an equality of poverty. Podoroga valued the individual as the only possible philosophical subject. His idea of freedom was as an inner experience, which he himself attained in the last Soviet years when the archives of Western books opened to him and a “feast of knowledge” was made available. This private, inner freedom of reading and thinking was for him a kind of utopia. Yet this exercise of freedom was a strictly individual pursuit. Reflecting on the years of our friendship, 1987–2016, I ask whether the phenomenological experience of freedom would not, rather, require public acts of resistance.

anthropogram, aesthetic avant-garde, cinematic perception, laboratory of philosophy, linguistic perception, machine mimesis, mass perception, philosophical anthropology, philosophy as image, political vision, revolution and affect, sensory ontology, visual solidarity
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1 … a whole network of different coincidences, concerning time and the age…like astrology really.1
1. Valery Podoroga, comment during 2016 lecture at the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow (see below). URL: >>>> .
2 The story of my accidental collision with Valery Podoroga at the Institute of Philosophy in 1987 is told elsewhere in detail. Now, in commemorating Valery Podoroga three decades later, I want to emphasize a certain physicality of that meeting, the bodily experience of my sudden and surprising presence among Cold-War counterparts, before and beyond any national, political, or societal identities that purported to divide us. It mattered that our meeting was fortuitous. I was not part of an official delegation. There was no group or position that we were representing. There was no plan to enter a dialogue of civilization. We met in medias res, without intellectual defenses and with a kind of shock of recognition, hence the porosity of our minds to the other’s being in this very specific, as yet undetermined time and space.
3 Crossing physical borders at a time when conceptual borders are decomposing is an experience of liberation. The liberatory prototype is the battlefield, the theatre of war’s real vulnerability and terror, when suddenly a truce is declared. And the human actors, who have been caged in categories and conceptions of separation, are rendered free of the ideological armor of war.

5 Russian and German soldiers fraternize on the Eastern front. December, 1917
6 In our case, no such drama, no truce occurred. Just a meeting in a porous place. I came into the seminar room, and they were there. Helen Petrovsky began spontaneously to translate, and our collaboration began. This coming together was individual, incipient. We did not know it, but we were about to experience a momentous historical rupture: the dissolution of the Soviet Union and abandonment of the Bolshevik Revolutionary experiment, transforming the nuclear-armed, global landscape of the Cold War that had dominated the lives of our generation.
7 I believe the sense of wonder was stronger from my position. I was the invader into their world; I was the alien passing through the still-weaponized barricades. Moreover, Podoroga and his colleagues were no longer isolated from European philosophy. Marxism and Marxist thought were part of a shared discourse to which we in the United States were tangentially connected. Foreign Marxists were regular visitors to the Institute of Philosophy. In contrast, Marxists at my home institution, Cornell University, were rare.



10 Left: The Golitsyn Palace (18th century),
11 transformed from noble housing to the Soviet Institute of Philosophy in 1929.
12 Right: Goldwin Smith Hall, Cornell University, constructed in the late 19th century to accommodate the Cornell Dairy, an agricultural center until 1903, when it became the center for Humanities study at the School of Arts and Sciences.
13 The neo-classical façades of the buildings that housed us are symbols of the Enlightenment ideal of a Republic of Letters — cosmopolitan, humanist, a fortress for thinkers, a shelter for reason, a privileged, and (relatively) safe place within civilizations that have maintained themselves with murderous violence. We were quite alike in our reading lists and philosophical forebearers: from Kant and Hegel to Adorno and Benjamin, from German phenomenologists to French existentialists. But Cold War ideology had confined Marxism to the margins in the United States. I had only read Western Marxists, some of whom were regularly present in Moscow. Georg Lukács was a long-time guest. The French philosopher Louis Althusser was also a visitor. In the USSR after Stalin’s death, philosophical discussions of Marx served as an instrument for liberalization. Scientific Marxism, humanist Marxism, Hegelian Marxism, the Marxism of relentless critique — these interpretations were relatively protected debates at the Institute of Philosophy. In the United States those of us who studied and taught Marx’s writings imagined ourselves at the forefront of radical thinking. In retrospect, they were ahead, already undertaking a post-mortem of revolutionary radicalism, based on their knowledge of its real historical effects. That reflective positioning was the divergence between us, not philosophical thinking itself. Despite the imagined polarizations of Cold War ideology or fantasies of national differences, we were not the Other of each other.

Seeing Inside The Mind


16 Stills from Sergei Eisenstein Strike (Stachka), 1924
17 Intellectually, we met at the level of the image. Pragmatically, this was a shortcut to bypass linguistic limitations, but it was also in accord with our previous work. Both Valery and I were, and remained convinced that sensory experience, not the concept, was the effective entryway to philosophizing. Aesthetics was not to be conflated with «art.» It was, rather, inseparable from reflection on reason, and sensory analysis was the litmus test of truth. For me, Walter Benjamin’s work on the image as a medium of thought provided crucial training. For Podoroga, it was the work of the Russian-Georgian philosopher Merab Mamardashvili, whose lectures on Hegel’s Phemenology of Mind and Existentialism Valery attended at Moscow State University in 1969 –1971.2 Describing philosophical thought as “consciousness aloud” [12, p. 5].3 his way of lecturing was to make the inner state of thinking perceptible,4 an approach that intrigued Valery. Inspiring for me was Walter Benjamin’s claim in the Passagenwerk: “Method of this project: literary montage. I have nothing to say, only to show.”5 We shared an interest, in how philosophical questions were approached in visual form. Valery focused on the affective experience of consciousness that was manifested in the image. My attention was on how filmic montages of space-time fragments themselves construct ideas. Cinema provides a collective perception, hence its political potential. The time/space within a film, no matter how individually composed, creates a shared perceptible field. It thereby dissipates the problem of solipsism that has festered within modern, bourgeois philosophy since the time of Descartes.
2. In 1970s Mamardashvili taught the crowded philosophy courses at Moscow film schools. He has been called the “filmmakers’ philosopher,” [12] having influenced future directors and actors as well as philosophers and theorists. In 1991 he joined our meeting in Dubrovnik. He died suddenly shortly thereafter [4, p. 231–57].

3. “’Philosophy,’ he said, ‘is consciousness aloud’” [12, p. 42–43].

4. [Ibid. p. 43]. In 1988 Mamardashvili described consciousness as “the meeting place for things we cannot connect in any empirical way” [ibid., p. 42].

5. Passagenwerk, (N1a, 8), cited and translated in [7, p. 222].
18 During the years of glasnost’, Hollywood films like Star Wars (dir. George Lucas, 1978) played in Moscow’s Dom Kino where Valery and I would often meet. But it was not contemporary cinema that interested us. Rather, it was early, experimental film, specifically, the silent cinema of the Bolshevik period, and its canonical directors Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov. Podoroga focused on the deliberate intensity of movement and affect produced in Eisenstein’s work, whereas I was attracted to the cutting and pasting of fragments of reality that characterized Vertov’s work. For me, the camera was an aperture to the world. For Valery it was a means of registering violence of observation that was itself violent. My predilection for Vertov was based on his taking reality apart and putting it together, giving us experiences of things that we cannot have without cinematic mediation, and inspiring creative imagination of the new.
19 Podoroga researched and wrote extensively on what he called the “cinematic metaphysics” of Sergei Eisenstein [18]. He drew attention to the way human bodies became in Eisenstein’s films “experiments for graphic representations,” stretching the contours of the body and facial expressions to the limit. Pure line, pure emotion, the “phenomenological expression of pain,” reinstalled affective experience that was effaced in front of the “tearless eye of the camera.” Eisenstein’s mise-en-scène eliminated the accidental; his images yielded a tightly controlled presentation of affect with a heightened intensity that they provided, the close-up of violence, “the phenomenological expression of pain” [6, p. 45–62]6. Significantly, Podoroga drew attention to the brutality of Eisenstein’s camera eye, its depictions of violence. I realize now that in our talks we were theorizing revolution in and through philosophizing on these images. Vertov’s camera played with reality, created fake experiences, and sought to capture accidental effects. The camera was a “prosthesis” of the human eye, an organon of perception that could disclose hitherto unimagined worlds. It opened up the mind to what might be new to think in a differently constructed society. Revolution for me was still a thought experiment. Valery knew the violence of revolutionary enactment, the brutality required for the transformation of the natural, material world.
6. On Podoroga [6, p. 57–58].

21 Eisenstein: stills from 1 and 2 “Battleship Potemkin”. 3 ̶ “October”.

23 Vertov: stills from Man with a Movie Camera.


25 From the surface of the image Valery’s and my reflections moved in opposite directions. I described the image as “a film off the surface of objects.”7 It followed that the philosophical promise of image-perception was access to the transitory, material world as a collective experience. I marveled at the social significance of the image. Infinitely reproduceable, it belonged to no one. Escaping regimes of ownership as private property, it moved promiscuously across distances and time in ways that humans could not, allowing commonality and sharing of experience as a new form of communication. Benjamin’s essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproduction” (1935-36) was the source of my sanguine attitude toward the potential of the shared culture and collective knowledge of the image.8
7. “Photographs were first conceived as a ‘film’ off the surface of objects. (Painting retreated from mimetic realism and moved into visual modalities where the camera could not follow.) Now, the History of Art as a discipline became indebted to the new technology of photography in ways largely unrecognized within the discipline’s own foundational stories, and without parallel in literary studies’ relationship to cinema” (Susan Buck-Morss, “Visual Studies and Global Imagination” (2004 Papers on Surrealism), available from https: www. academia.edu, and in [9].

8. Oleg Aronson, student and colleague of Podoroga, shares this appreciation of both Benjamin and Vertov, and thus affirms the potentialities of mass culture. See [1].
26 Valery never allowed himself to be impervious to the inner state of the human body. He remained conscious of the physical vulnerability to which it was exposed under conditions of modernity. What we shared was an approach to philosophical subjectivity that was materialist in the physical sense. When I was writing on the ganglia nerve-system as system of physical perception, he paid philosophical attention to the surface of the skin that both received sensory stimulus and protected against it. Skin was simultaneously a conduit for physical sensations and a border protecting the vulnerable body against the shocks of the outside world.
27 At this time, Valery Podoroga was beginning his work on literary texts that translated these techniques of image-perception into a totally original, philosophical way of reading literature. His writing on Dostoyevsky employed sensory tools to open up the workings of the novels, as physical testimonies of a space that contains a world different from that of science and reason’s transcendental subject, but one that can be felt, indeed, experienced even when not obeying Kantian categorial laws. Neither the intent of the author, nor the narrative line was his concern. Rather, he asked us to press our ears to the text, to “listen” to the rhythms and sounds the language conveyed, in order to sense the populated environments of time and space, the planes of perception that they disclosed, and to pay attention, too, to the texts’ haptic qualities in terms of bodies, positions, gestures, color, and light.9 These were aesthetic categories. Philosophy was to proceed in this fashion, showing us how a text works to construct a world, literally, to make “sense.” As a form of Critical Theory, my analyses at the time showed how modern aesthetic forms had become a means of anaesthetics [13]. He insisted that the philosopher’s task was to resist this numbness of modern, mediated perception and take heed of the sensible, lest we lose the capacity to feel, to hope, to love.
9. In his magnum opus Mimesis, Podoroga wrote: “When we read Dostoyevsky today, we should not rush to comprehend him; first, we should learn to listen, to listen carefully to the movement of the bodies, their interplay, to set the boundaries of the sonorous realm of his great novels! Not to see, not to touch, not to imagine, that here as elsewhere, there is a possibility of a traditional exchange of bodies and sensuousness between the reader and the hero, that promotes a realistic representation of the world!” [17, p. 102].
28 When Fred Jameson proposed a collective discussion of Platonov’s 1930s novel The Foundation Pit at our celebrated 1990 meeting in Dubrovnik (Mamardashvili attended as well10), Podoroga demurred. He said we could not understand the text without reading it in the original Russian language. It seemed at the time unduly nationalistic. In retrospect I see a different reason for his reservations. The language of the text of Platonov’s high-Soviet novel had absorbed the physical experience of the mechanization of nature that characterized Stalin’s rapid programs of industrialization. Without the legacy of that experience, we would miss the power of the words. The plot of Platonov’s novel concerns the digging of a pit in order to erect the Proletarian Home, while a village nearby is experiencing the collectivization of agriculture.11 This might have seemed open to a general, political discussion, which was not Valery’s concern. Rather, his philosophical reading exposed the way the Soviet construction experience had seeped into the language of the text. Later, and on my own, I came to see texts as drawing historical experience into their very “wordliness,” demanding a task of philosophical translation that exposed their specific sensibilities in perceiving the phenomenally transient world.12
10. For an account of the Dubrovnik Conference, that took place just months before Mamardaschvili’s death and the outbreak of Yugoslavian civil war, see [4, p. 233–243].

11. Written during the first Five-Year Plan (1928–1932) The Foundation Pit was not accepted for publication, and first appeared in Russia in the 1980-s.

12. See the methodological section of Chapter 2 in [10, p. 29–39]. Reprinted in [8, p.147–58].
29 Here is Valery Podoroga on the “as if” (“als ob) language of Platonov’s novel, that points to a “hidden non-linguistic force”: It is the force of a cosmocratic utopia that acts within and against the spoken language….By mixing together directives, slogans, instructions, and orders with the improbability of the communist utopias, the language of the victorious class penetrated the everyday speech, and today we find it increasingly difficult to understand this speech, even though Platonov’s literature speaks a language that is part of our own heritage as post-Soviet cultural readers…As the cosmocratic language begins to unfold, all natural-organic, spontaneously formed connections between human beings are destroyed. Each body-character dies with every word it utters. This language wants to ‘come true’ whatever it takes, even though there will be no one left to speak it. The cosmocratic word negates its own meaning in action [17, p. 232].
30 It could be said that Platonov’s very enthusiasm, his love of machines turns the message of the novel inside out.

Mechanical Mimesis

32 Platonov worked on locomotives.13 He had a passion for machines, a visceral desire for the industrialization that the brutal speed of Stalinist modernizing initiated. His characters share this feeling: “Zhovov treated cast iron like his own flesh, better than his own body. …Zakhar Pavolvich would not take his eyes from the engine, silently suffering within himself his love for it.” [17, p. 252]14. Podoroga comments: This is not a substitution, but rather an incarnation of the human in the machinic form: the machine is domesticated, becomes equal to and above human being; the machine is the true human being of the future…. In Platonov’s atopia machines do not take the place of human beings, but the place of Nature; the machine-locomotive is a special kind of bio-hybridisation of a technical device and human flesh [ibid., 252]15.
13. “’Without having finished technical school,’ Platonov wrote to his wife in 1922, ‘I was hurriedly assigned to a locomotive as an engineer’s assistant. The phrase about the revolution being the locomotive of history for me turned into a strange and pleasant feeling: recalling it I worked especially hard on the locomotive’” [20, p. 6].

14. Again in: [15, p. 46].

15. Again in “Revolutionary Machines [15, p. 47].
33 In 2017, on the hundredth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, the important philosophy journal Stasis published a bi-lingual essay by Podoroga on Platonov’s novel The Foundation Pit.16 The essay (an excerpt from his major work Mimesis) draws attention to the philosophical question of how the mimetic relation between human and machine is reflected in the novel in existential categories of experience: time, space, and the organs of bodily perception. Valery claimed that Platonov’s novel does not contain time. It takes place, rather, in an eschatological “time after time,” in the post-natural “paradise of machines” to which humans, burdened by their old nature, strive mimetically to adapt [15, p. 37]. “Platonov expresses what is most important: revolution is not a historical event, but a natural catastrophe.” Out of the post-revolutionary destruction of natural forms, another human nature is shaped mimetically, on the model of the machine.17 Machines do not replace humans, but rather, the machine form is “the true human of the future.” [ibid., p. 37–46]. To cite Platonov: “The first commandment of technology, which exhausts all others, states: destroy nature as it is, and from its chaos create another human [nature], or nature will destroy you” [ibid., p. 39].
16. The editors of Stasis, Artemy Magun and Oxana Timofeeva, are important figures in contemporary Russian philosophy and theory. Former students of Podoroga, they are part of a new generation, well versed in the work of American as well as continental thinkers.

17. “Life is something truly non-anthropomorphic…. [T]he whole point of a social revolution is not in its short term, finite goals, but in the restructuring of all matter in the Cosmos (Nature). Only then, and on that basis, should society follow suit. These are the conclusions at which Platonov arrives”] [15, p. 38].
34 Rather than fantasizing the nature of the revolutionary break, Valery was engaged in a postmortem analysis of the failure of the Marxist inspired revolution, the only revolution that has mattered in the modernist era. On this hundredth anniversary he was commemorating not the Revolution, but the devastating, human experience of its success.
35 “After all, what is Revolution, if not the process of creating a new reality with the help of a fantastic Mega-machine” [17, p. 208].

37 Left: Design of CYBERSIN, developed by Stafford Beer for the Socialist President Allende of Chile, using computers to provide feedback on the economy to the central government in real time.
38 Right: General scheme of organization of the Supreme Council of National Economy.
39 ,January 1921, anticipating the central planning of the USSR.
40 The same issue of Stasis in which Valery’s article on Platonov appears, contains an opening article by Slavoj Žižek, who cites Jeremy Rifkin’s optimistic vision of a “collaborative common” emerging in the present, “a new mode of production and exchange that leaves behind private property and market exchange” [21, p. 7]. This discussion was continued at the 2017 conference organized in the European University at St. Petersburg. The conference was dominated by consideration of the revolutionary event, its possible leadership, its organizational forms.18 I spoke of Revolution Today, and, like Slavoj, considered the new conditions for success.19 What, for example, might be the revolutionary potential of socialist planning after the invention of computers, developed too late for Soviet implementation?
18. Jodi Dean’s position at the conference reflected her essay “Crowds and Publics” that also appeared in the special Stasis issue [11, p. 196–218].

19. Material for this talk was published as [5].
41 We knew the distopias of modern technology — from nuclear weapons to ecological disasters. But the bleak landscape of Platonov’s novels is one of locomotives and tractors, the good machines, the Savior machines, and the human-imagined utopia they promised.
42 Valery’s work on Platonov silently raises the question of what kind of mimetic transformation of subjectivity now occurs with the inversion of technology from production-machine to hand-held “device.” (To my knowledge Podoroga never wrote on these technologies directly.) Our bodies are terminals connecting us to self-learning, self-correcting algorithms, producing knowledge internal to systems, the complexity and lack of transparency of which far exceed human capacity to mimic cognitively, while transforming the bodily actions of human users.
43 Incessantly, we feed this voracious digital machine the information it needs to activate an internet landscape that determines our world. In the problem-solving process, our dativized existence is fully known, monitored, retrievable and permanent (eternal). Every production is collective, yet anonymous. The user/consumer/producer interface blocks access to the phenomenal world behind the screen. As for the internal world of the mind, creative processes are confined to eclectic choices of sequences of searches that capture material from elsewhere. When did “human error” become the happy cause of airplane accidents and nuclear disasters, leading us to put more confidence and trust in machines than the human that runs them? The point is that the technological perfection of the world in no way assures that this world will be one in which anthropomorphic dominance continues. Belief in the sustained anthropocentrism of our environment is unwarranted.

Philosophical Mimesis

45 Podoroga’s philosophizing method of linguistic analysis is brilliantly revealed in his Mimesis volumes (2006–2011).20 In the “book” on Platonov (vol. 2), Podoroga cites the whole of Platonov’s 1931 letter to Stalin, in which he apologizes for treating agricultural collectivization in an “irresponsible” way in his writings21. We are prepared to understand this self-critique as exemplary of the literary genre of “letters to the Leader,’” a genre itself formed by the language of the Despot, as “a negative mimesis of the oppressive language-executioner, created by the might of an autocratic and unlimited will”: First and foremost, one had to reject literature as a personal undertaking, for it is precisely this rejection that is seen in the recognition of one’s political errors and the condemnation of oneself for the ‘incorrect’ non-proletarian understanding of the aims of literature….Platonov desperately attempted to redo his novels this way or that way…but he still remained under suspicion as he was not able to give up his own peculiar manner of writing. What we see then is the marginalization of a literary experience and, in essence, a civil execution of the artist. …Thus Platonov invented a language that all of his heroes spoke, pretending that he merely described and reported, that is, that he was guided only by the truth of observation [17, p. 240].
20. These consist of “books” on Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Platonov, Bely, and the group Oberiu. A one-volume version in English translation, is now in preparation, has been made available to me; citations and page references cited here are from this manuscript.

21. This letter, with Stalin’s marginal comments, has been preserved. It refers to Platonov’s novella For Future Use (Vprok).
46 In the introduction to Mimesis Valery explains the method of “literary mimesis” as a form within literary texts rather than classical mimesis (Aristotle/Auerbach/Ricoeur) that deals with the text’s relation to the outside world. Thus the critical (and I would say, political) power of Podoroga’s analyses is perceived through the language of the text, not its plot or social content.
47 He writes on Gogol, whose hero in Dead Souls (1842) swindled the swindlers, rich landowners who counted their serfs as dead when it came to paying taxes on them, but alive when trying to guarantee a loan. The novel’s depiction of corruption of the sort later depicted in Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man (1857), and years before Russia’s freeing of the serfs in 1861, is full of directly socio-political implications. But Podoroga performs a general analysis of Gogol’s language and finds critical power in the words themselves. It is Gogol’s deployment of «little words» some his own «onomotic metaphorical inventions» that, as small «heaps of letters» cause chaos within a phrase, «exploding» the unified, imperial language of classical Russian literature. «The language of little words is the opposite of a courtly high society conversation», Gogol’s language was among the «minor languages» («pre-languages, ghetto-languages, reservation-languages») that characterizes literatures «beyond the boundaries of imperial influence». «It is from here that the army executes raids, plans sabotaging activities, digs underground passages; it is here that Gogol conceives of his absurdistry [заумь] that was meant to explode the language, to prevent it from imposing its rule… Not just a little word — a real dynamite. And it means whatever one pleases…» [17, p. 41–46].
48 Valery chases power back into the foxhole of its history and circles around the linguistic explosions that disrupt it. This bursting of literary forms culminates in the revolutionary consciousness of the avant-garde: «For in our definition, the avant-garde consciousness, or if we go wider, the leftist art as such (Brecht, Vertov, Platonov, Filonov or Khlebnikov) is a revolutionary consciousness. Where it takes place, it opens up an aspect of the world defined by the explosive nature of changes. The avant-garde consciousness balances between destruction and renewal (a ‘new beginning’.) This beginning is the very goal of the destruction. The destruction indicates the possibility of beginning again, and the more radical the destruction, the more devastating the novelty. “Show me how well you can destroy, and I will tell you what sort of avant-gardist you are!”» [ibid., p. 209–210].
49 He describes the illusory collectivism of the avant-garde: «The avant-garde artist perceives himself to be the messenger of an invisible collective (that consists of those like him), and therefore attempts to de-individualise his manner of creating things. The Machine is of great help here» [ibid., p. 210].

Revolution In/As Ruins

51 Podoroga writes: «One of the avant-garde’s most important achievements is the de-anthropologisation of the world. We mean the mechanization of sensibility and all the possibilities of perception» [ibid., p. 209]. The revolutionary artist celebrates revolutionary destruction and the mechanization of perception as an expression of «the will to a new form». The philosopher follows mimetically: «We must find a position to be able to see this will “in action”: to see how a text moves, how it is weaved together, how it spreads out beyond its own confines, to see a form emerge…. to see how the features of an unfamiliar (to us) world are slowly emerging…» [ibid., p. 173].
52 But why must we? What is it about the moments of «explosion» that the philosopher needs to understand? In his discussion of the writer Andrei Bely, whose work straddled the years of revolutionary destruction, Podoroga focuses on Bely’s «two interacting images: swarms and holes» (there is also «con-swarming»). For Bely, «early on the world appears in two states: as something holey like a giant piece of light-dark cheese — “the world consists of pipes, stoves, air vents, that is, holes” — and as something swarming, as a swarm that is merging, indistinguishable, soft, malleable, softened, slippery, almost like a mist, at times dense and viscous in consistency — “the swarming of innumerable swarms”» [ibid., p. 179].

54 Stills from Sergei Esenstein. Strike (Stachka), 1924
55 These holes and swarms evoke for me images from Eisenstein’s film Strike (1924). It is the revolutionary moment — always anarchic, always transitional, always political. But Valery is moving in a different, somewhat baffling direction, proposing nothing less than an existential ontology of holes, swarms, and the revolutionary experience itself: “Swarm is loss of form”; “The hole is always heavy; it drags in, pulls in, swallows, compresses”; The “con-swarm” is a new ordering [ibid.] 22. This is a precarious positioning for philosophizing — an ontology of metaphor, of literary language.23 A philosophical path is made into the text through the literary particulars of holes, machines, heaps and swarms. And this is done in a discussion of revolutionary consciousness, as if the question of new political forms could be permanently deferred. The rarified air of the ontological strikes me as problematic when what needs desperately to be understood is not only revolution as ruin (destruction of form), but revolution in ruins, the catastrophic shattering of this modern idea of social transformation.
22. Revolution changes: “Involution is an explosion but a slow one; it brings order from inside the maturing form” (cf. Bely’s 1917 essay «Revolution and Culture»).

23. Aronson has dealt with this philosophical move by Podoroga from literature to ontology, facing the charge that this poses an ontological difference» in a way that Adorno protested strongly against [2]. Podoroga is clearly not mimicking Heidegger here, and yet his ontological move remains problematic.
56 After 2001, I was in Moscow infrequently and saw Valery rarely in the last two decades of his life. As I study his work today, I am aware of certain philosophical gestures that our late work shares.24 We both looked to an anthropological model as method (he called it “anthropological analytics”25). We saw writers of an earlier historical experience as “informants” of a time that we ourselves could not access.26 We both elaborated the significance of apocalyptic time in its multiple manifestations. We preferred the mimetic procedures of analogics to chrono-logics. We favored the anti-dogmatic, anti-systematic construction of ideas, that can be described by Walter Benjamin’s term “constellations.” We both shunned the hegemonic discourses, concentrating instead on the work of marginal, “experimental” figures. If for Valery (late 19th–early 20th century) literature was the entryway to a new form of philosophizing, for myself it was (1st–century) history. Anthropological method for me was to read the world as it entered into the words. For Valery it was to read the world the words created. From our earliest work on cinema, we remained focused on the sensible within perception. Both of us carried on intellectual projects in dialogues with practicing artists.27 As critical theorists, we shunned official forms of influence. As philosophers, we still felt the project of reflective thinking worth our while.
24. I am referring here to Valery’s Mimesis volumes and to my book [10].

25. See the subtitle of the Mimesis series: Studies in the Analytical Anthropology of Literature.

26. “We are other readers, other than the ones that came before us; today we are the anthropologists of literature.” And the authors, the writers, are our “guide-informants” [19, p. 5].

27. Podoroga was engaged with the avant-garde of his time in a series of Visual Anthropology Workshops (1993-94) that included artists. In 1998 his Laboratory for Post-classsical Research at the Institute of Philosophy was renamed the Sector for Analytic Anthropology.
57 We lived through parallel times. And yet our intellectual personae were very different. I was gregarious, he was private. I sought clarity, he kept mystery. I travelled, he preferred home. But perhaps the greatest difference is in how we viewed public space as it relates to philosophical practice. In the obvious sense, nothing that he wrote was political. In another register, all of it was and nothing else mattered. Like Adorno (the topic of his dissertation), Podoroga valued the individual as the only possible philosophical subject. He read and benefitted from the expertise of others, but his own interpretations were always original. They moved on a tangent away from the ruling views. Even those who worked most closely with him (Oleg Aronson, Helen Petrovsky and others) remained autonomous thinkers. His influence was widespread. He was a leading figure, a winner of prizes, but no «school» of followers was formed. 28 Valery described his way of working as «experimental». He called his seminars laboratories. His philosophical approach is attractively non-dogmatic. It opens up possibilities for the movement of thought, even when the entryways he chooses are rarified, unmarked, and often difficult to find.
28. Podoroga won the prestigious 2006 Andrei Bely Prize, and in 2015 the Kandinsky Prize.

Authentic Marx

59 For insight into the way Valery worked, and also his way of being — how his brilliance and charisma was tempered by a non-authoritarian, almost vulnerable self-presence — an English language speaker would do well to view his on-line lecture at the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow, 2016.29 Valery was invited to speak on the controversial Marxist philosopher of art and critic of modernism Mikhail Lifschitz (1905–1983).30 Lifschitz’s persistent critique of modernism, despite transformations in the political situation has been called in turn, Leninist, Stalinist, liberal, and conservative.31 But Valery claims that what remains absolutely consistent in Lifschitz’s position is its stance of criticism in the name of Marx, and that this, indeed, is what makes him an «authentic» Marxist. Valery mentions that «Saint Max» — Marx’s early criticism of Max Stirner, comprising nearly 400 pages, longer than Stirner’s book Marx criticized — was about only the mistakes, only the wrong things, and remarks: «Poor Saint Max Stirner! I realized he really was a saint after all this humiliation». Lifschitz’s critique aimed to rescue Marx from the official discourses that claimed him. Throughout his life, Lifschitz insists on no gap between Marx and Marxism. He remains immoderate, ruthless, a critic of his time, and although he rejected the Frankfurt School, he shared with Adorno the persistent negation of a dialectical critique.32
29. >>>> The simultaneous translation is not perfect, yet in the gestures and bodily responses, particularly in the discussion, a great deal of Valery is conveyed. For the substance of the lecture and more, see (in English) the interview of Keti Chukhrov and Alexei Penzin with Valery Podoroga [19]. This article explains the intricacies of reception of multiple post-Stalinist Marxisms in the Soviet Union — Hegelian, humanist, existentialist, structuralist, scientific. All of the figures of “Western” Marxism are there.

30. The event was part of the Garage Museum’s three-year project on Lifschitz, who was active in multiple eras of the Russian revolutionary experience, from early years at the art school VKhUTEMAS (among teachers like Malevich, Lissitzky and Rodchenko) to later scholarship on Marxist aesthetics at the Marx-Engels Institute (where he shared an office, and a friendship with Georg Lukács) to his final years (when modernism stood for destalinization and democracy).

31. As part of the Garage project, Lifschitz’ important book Crisis of Ugliness (1968) was republished on its 50th birthday translated into English and edited by David Riff. This beautiful volume, including multiple illustrations, points out how his critique of modernism worked to disseminate the images themselves, hence functioning as an important source for audiences who had been kept largely ignorant of these works: [13].

32. In his discussion with editors of Stasis, Valery elaborates on his Lifschitz lecture: “In fact, Lifshitz’s position seems ambiguous, like almost everything he wrote. Being excessively dialectical, he is quicker to look for contradictions and inconsistencies than to propose a way out or a final alternative formulation of the problem. I think this is part of his strategy as a Marxist critic: to shake things up, to “mess up the party” in the words of Daniil Kharms, but not to correct or to conceal” [18, p. 281].
60 How then to approach Marx? How to read the revolutionaries of the past? Valery holds up a Russian translation of Derrida’s 1993 book Spectres of Marx, that speaks of Marx’s ghost of Communism “haunting Europe,” his evocation of earlier ghosts from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, to Milton, to Burke and now the Marxist critique that persists, haunting the present. Podoroga knew Derrida (we together arranged Derrida’s Moscow visit); he agrees with him that when a work has outlived its time there is only textual reality. Readers in the present must, as Derrida insists, expand the possibilities of the text, not reduce it. Deconstruction is a kind of ontology that appeals to Valery — without ground, and therefore fundamentally pluralist. Lifschitz is doing a different thing. Lifshitz, according to Valery, is essentially an authentic Marxist who knows Marx very well and does not separate Marx from Marxism. He calls such a Marxism utopian, but not in the sense that utopia acts here in order to reach a special time, but in the sense that he uses utopia as the regulative idea of critique. The main task of authentic Marxism is to unmask, because the truth is already known, as it is known whose side it is on. A kind of “negative ontology” like Lukács, whom Lifschitz knew well. Says Valery: “I know this position, and I don’t agree,” even as: “I am a participant in these processes.” 33 Then, in the talk, comes a striking juxtaposition of images. They show us two ghosts of Marx.
33. Following the lecture Valery responds to a questioner who speaks of «objective truth»: «How do I answer this? I don’t use this language, this universal language that you think is common to everyone. I would rather hear your own perception of what is Marxism… We are not in the play of mass media. You act as if you speak the truth and I am the only one who doesn’t. We come together to talk about serious things for which we don’t have a language yet. The truth does not belong only to science; it exists in different forms, including utopian forms…You can’t traumatize the lecturer from the general perception point of view. We are all searching for objective truth. What about you? We are all sitting here. I value Lifschitz because he attempted to preserve the idea of Marx without Marxism. The aim is not to all become Lifschitzians rather than philosophers».
61 One is a «mirage Marx» as representation of all the proletariat coming to his tomb. the other is the family plot, the real place where he was buried. Valery shows an image from a documentary film “News from Ideological Antiquity — Marx/Eisenstein/The Capital” (2008) by Alexander Kluge demonstrating how poor the state of this tomb was, and asks: «Did Derrida know of Marx’s two graves?». The mirage Marx is a monument to official Marxism that overshows Marx himself. It was made by an English sculptor, paid for by the Soviet government, erected at the entrance of the cemetery in London where the real Marx is buried. Valery addresses these details, because he visited this monument in 1957 together with the pupils of the school attached to the Russian Embassy in England (in the picture) and was photographed “putting my flowers as a sacrifice” at the site. According to Valery, this sympathetic link made him take an interest in Lifshitz with great enthusiasm because «I recognized this dual existence» this “gap between Marxism and Marx”.
62 Photo of young Valery at the monument to Marx, London cemetery.
63 The extreme individualism of Valery Podoroga is a consequence of the Soviet past that marked his childhood. In a conversation with Stasis editors of a younger generation, he relates that when he was a graduate student, he suddenly had access to all of the books of Western philosophy held in the restricteduse libraries and reading them “became a drug. We were dumbfounded by its availability and variety” [18, p. 273]. This “feast of knowledge” this private, «inner» freedom of reading and thinking was a kind of utopia. It was a situation of “double think,” and it had a “rhythmic structure,” taking place with the authorities’ tacit consent, an “effective pact” at a time when the power of Soviet ideology was already waning.34 In contrast, with the actual end of socialism, intellectuals had to scramble for work just to survive. Podoroga’s Stasis interlocutors were raised in the new Russia, where access to foreign books was commonplace but time to think was at a premium, and where the economic brutalities of capitalism were experienced in accelerated time. They disagreed with their former teacher about the importance, still, of Marx. He considered their new, “glamorous” Marxism quite comfortably bourgeois, reminding them that the equality of socialism was an equality of poverty.
34. Podoroga describes this “inner freedom”: “the main thing was for words of protest and criticism not to be reflected or carry anti-Soviet resonance in the public sphere, but you could study whatever interested you as long as you keep up appearances, and avoid sticking your neck out or provoking the authorities. It was possible to get around all the formal rules, but again, you had to observe this pact with the authorities, an unsigned, but effective pact. The dissident movement did a great deal to destroy this ‘double’ morality, this ‘double-think,’ but did not take into account (or did not want to take into account) this collusion between society and the government” [18, p. 272].
64 Their exchange reveals not only the generational divide, but also of the centrality of Podoroga’s valuing of the individual. Highly learned in the work of modern philosophers, he bent those he cited to his own philosophical will. He wrote in Anthropograms (2017): “….philosophy exists within the boundaries of unrepeatable individual experience of thought, and not as a collective and universal task…” [18, p.1]. He positions the philosopher in a space he creates between reading and the literary work. Thinking is drawn into this space, its contours are elaborated, its habitation is examined. In this way, a collaboration is inaugurated between the non-identical tasks of philosophizing and literary writing, centrally focused on the human, the anthropological, not as a changeless being, but as a force for creating form in a world of change.


66 Valery Podoroga was one of the most brilliant and challenging thinkers I have known. His esotericism was not aloofness or indifference. He engaged in intellectual exchange broadly and with pleasure. He was gentle, humorous, and kind. But he was also formidable, and never more so than when defending the individualism that he championed, not only for himself, but also for his closest collaborators. He and his ghosts will therefore forgive me if I end this essay of deep appreciation for his extraordinary project with a critique, specifically, of his insistence on the individuality of philosophizing, implying that the duality of the social individual and the private thinker of philosophy is eternally necessary [ibid., p. 278]. Perhaps Podoroga gave up too quickly on the masses as a collective subject that expresses itself in mediated forms. Here I would mention the work of Oleg Aronson who continues the line of thinking of the cinema experience as a philosophical project, describing the “communicative image” shared by an affective “non-institutional community” that operates “in the new global media environment — an experience of the “we,” as a “collective sensibility,” that remains “open, relational, and heterogeneous.”35 And I would insist that philosophy recognize the necessity to perform, in public space, the freedom that thinking demands. With reference to the 2011–2013 mass demonstrations in Russia visible throughout the world, Petrovsky speaks of ethics as “a way of being together, of changing the existing state of affairs through collective and unmediated action. It is the re-appropriation of publicity itself” [14, p.770]. But the performance of freedom is not limited to mass demonstrations. If art today is “a synonym for action” (Petrovsky), then a certain honor is due to those who take a risk, who “stick their necks out” within public space. In this sense, the action of Pussy Riot in 2012 deserves our respect, not as a statement regarding religion or political position, or even their private motivations, but as pure image, a manifestation of the explosive energy of young women, unbounded by the forces of order. Their uncensored bodily movements were not in the least salacious. The image of their joy was contagious. The image of their fear in prison was as well. Women, globally, took notice, sharing an image-perception of affective affinity, both transient and intensely real.
35. Aronson, 2017, cited in [14, p. 763].

68 Pussy Riot 1) performing, 2) imprisoned, 2012. 3) Zapatista Women at the Second International Gathering of Women Who Struggle, 2019
69 On the hundredth anniversary of the 1917 revolution, I visited Valery Podoroga in his Moscow home. I was on my way to pay tribute to that event at a conference hosted by the European University at St. Petersburg that publishes Stasis. In 2017 our shared world had changed. Moscow looked different. Not only was McDonalds at Pushkin Square, but also a series of photos of old tsarist Moscow was exhibited on the Ring Road as the present administration’s response to 1917. Sitting at his living room table, with Helen Petrovsky translating, just as she had almost forty years before, the time was warmly familiar. What were we to each other? Neither comrades nor lovers, neither partners nor life-collaborators, we were, as he said that day, friends. No doubt, friendship is everything in life.
70 It is also not enough.


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