- Late Soviet Culture: A Parallax for Postmodernism
In an essay recently published in October (no. 63, Winter 1993), Hal Foster uses a suggestive metaphor for the study of contemporary artistic production—he speaks of “postmodernism in parallax.” Foster’s astronomical metaphor (“parallax” [from Greek para-, “beside, beyond,” and allassein, “to change”], in astronomy, means “the difference in [position and] direction of a celestial body as measured from two points on the earth”) furnishes a possibility of salvaging the discourse on postmodernism from becoming a passing fad (a danger Foster highlights in his essay) by reaching beyond the spatial coordinates in which it has been primarily operating (the industrialized West), that is, by effecting a shift in the position from which it is contemplated.
This agenda seems to have been on the mind of the editors of Duke University Press’s Post-Contemporary Interventions series, which over the course of its five years has brought out such titles as Postmodernism and Japan and The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective. Late Soviet Culture is the series’ first volume to focus on the former Soviet Union—a territory which for various reasons has been conspicuously absent from many
If for many observers postmodernism itself is still a very contradictory and “fuzzy” concept, this is even more true in the case of Russian, or Soviet postmodernism: is it really possible to speak of a postmodern cultural condition—which, if we follow most of the theorists of the postmodern, is defined as a product of commodity culture, new electronic technologies (computers, video, etc.), new “geopolitical aesthetics”—in the former Soviet Union, a totalitarian empire that has disintegrated into medieval style micro-states in which the most basic commodities are in shortage? It is admittedly problematic to apply to late Soviet culture those theories of postmodernism that view it primarily as the cultural condition of the developed Western societies, characterized by the ecstasy of consumerism and commodity culture, and the proliferation of new technologies (video, cyberspace, etc.). However, the striking similarity between certain cultural products emerging in recent decades from both the Western world and the late Soviet Union suggests that the putative “postmodernism” of the latter is more than merely a symptom of Western myopia. Such theories of postmodernism as develop Georges Bataille’s notions of general economy of expenditure, excess and waste, for example (theories usefully discussed in Arkady Plotnitsky’s recent study Reconfigurations: Critical Theory and General Economy [Gainesville, 1993]), would seem to indicate legitimate moments of linkage and overlap. Postmodern Culture itself has been a pioneer in the discussion of Russian postmodernism, publishing a symposium on the topic in the January 1993 issue.
The editors of Late Soviet Culture chose not to enter the debate headlong. To be exact, only two out of the fifteen essays included in it directly discuss the notion of a Russian postmodernism. However, the book in its entirety (being as it is a very heterogeneous collection—which is typical of the genre of post-conference volumes to which it belongs) is an excellent contribution to cultural studies: it offers a “slice” across the many aspects of late Soviet culture (to be exact, Russian Soviet, for the cultural condition of other former Soviet republics is never addressed, with the one possible exception of Evgeny Dobrenko’s essay). For the expert, the book has many insights and provocations to offer; a Slavic scholar would find it worth reading cover-to-cover. But the collection could also serve as a very good introduction for a non-Slavicist to Soviet culture at the times of perestroika and glasnost, grounded in the context of some crucial precursory phenomena. Soviet postmodernism has many dissimilarities from its Western cousin; and the essays in this volume both analyze its emergence in terms of the inner logic of the development of Russian culture and contrast it with that of the West.
In their introduction, the editors of the volume note that “it appears today that positions, theories, and ideas become obsolete almost at the moment of their utterance” (v). Indeed, the contributions to Late Soviet Culture...