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  • Hyper in 20th Century Culture: The Dialectics of Transition From Modernism to Postmodernism*
  • Mikhail Epstein

1. The Modernist Premises of Postmodernism

The first half of the 20th century evolved under the banner of numerous revolutions, such as the “social,” “cultural” and “sexual,” and revolutionary changes in physics, psychology, biology, philosophy, literature and the arts. In Russia, momentous changes took place in spheres which were not the same as those in the West. But both worlds were united through a common revolutionary model. This fact explains the typological similarities, which have emerged in the second half of the 20th century, between Western postmodernism and contemporary Russian culture, which is evolving, like its Western counterpart, under the sign of “post”: as post-communist or post-utopian culture.

Our analysis will deal with the laws of cultural development of the 20th century which are shared by the Western world and Russian society, nothwithstanding the fact that this was Russia’s epoch of tragic isolation from and aggressive opposition to the West. It was Russia’s revolutionary project which distinguished her from the West, but it was precisely through this “revolutionariness” that Russia inscribed herself into the cultural paradigm of the 20th century.

Revolutions are certainly a part of the Modernist project. In the widest meaning of the term “modern,” this project is a quest for and reconstruction of an authentic, higher, essential reality, to be found beyond the conventional, arbitrary sign systems of culture. The founding father of Modernism was in this respect Jean-Jacques Rousseau, with his critique of contemporary civilization and discovery of a primal, “unspoilt” existence of man in nature. The thought of Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, which exposed the illusion of an ideological self-consciousness, discovered an “essential” reality in the self-propagation of matter and material production, in the life instinct, in the will to power, in the sexual drive and in the power of the unconscious. These discoveries were all creations of Modernism.

In this same sense, James Joyce, with his discovery of the “stream of consciousness” and the “mythological prototypes” underlying the conventional forms of the “contemporary individual,” was a Modernist. The same can be said of Kazimir Malevich, who erased the multiplicity of colors of the visible world in order to uncover its geometric foundation, the “black square.” Velimir Khlebnikov, who insisted on the essential reality of the “self-valuable,” “trans-sense” word, affirmed the shamanistic incantation of the type “bobeobi peli guby” in place of the conventional language of symbols. Although antagonistic to artistic Modernism, the communist revolution was a manifestation of political Modernism. It strove to bring to power the “true creators of reality,” who “generated material well-being” — namely the working masses. These masses would bring down the “parasitic” classes, who distort and alienate reality, appropriating for themselves the fruits of the labour of others by means of all manner of ideological illusions and the bureaucratic apparatus.

On the whole, Modernism can be defined as a revolution which strove to abolish the arbitrary character of culture and the relativity of signs in order to affirm the hidden absoluteness of being, regardless of how one defined this essential, authentic being: whether as “matter” and “economics” in Marxism, “life” in Nietzsche, “libido” and “the unconscious” in Freud, “creative elan” in Bergson, “stream of consciousness” in William James and James Joyce, “being” in Heidegger, the “self-valuable word” in Futurism or “the power of workers and peasants” in Bolshevism. The list could go on.

Postmodernism, as is known, directs its sharpest criticism at Modernism for the latter’s adherence to the illusion of an “ultimate truth,” an “absolute language,” a “new style,” all of which were supposed to lead to the “essential reality.” The name itself points to the fact that Postmodernism constituted itself as a new cultural paradigm in the very process of differentiating itself from Modernism, as an experiment in the self-enclosure of sign systems, of language folding in upon itself. The very notion of a reality beyond that of signs is criticised by Postmodernism as the “last” in a series of illusions, as a survival of the old “metaphysics of presence.” The world of secondariness, that is, of conventional and contingent...