- Reading, Writing, and Realism in 19th-Century Russia
For perceptive observers of modernity, from Sigmund Freud to Marshall McLuhan, communications technology and media have served as “marvelous extensions of man,” enabling the acquisition of knowledge, capacities, and experiences by ordinary individuals transformed, in Freud’s unforget-table words, into a “kind of prosthetic God.”1 Even as we have not yet fully processed the implications of the industrial revolution in print and electronic media (radio, cinema, television), we are overwhelmed by a tsunami of digital media that is fundamentally inundating every facet of our experience, from community to cognition. In light of the current upheaval, the media landscape of the past seems delightfully quaint, despite the fact that the explosion [End Page 377] of the printed word and the media infrastructure of the 19th century was comparable in the magnitude of its revolutionary effects. While none of the three scholarly studies under review explicitly conceives of itself as media studies, which is still nascent in Russian studies, this is where they intersect: in their approach to literature and the visual arts as media that extend our perceptions and experience of life, or alternatively, that offer deceptive copies that are accepted as real, emblematizing Baudrillard’s concept of the hyperreal.2
Tat´iana Venediktova’s Literatura kak opyt: “Burzhuaznyi chitatel´” kak kul´turnyi geroi constructs an elegant and compelling model of “bourgeois” writing and reading that can be fruitfully drawn into dialogue with Irina Reyfman’s How Russia Learned to Read and Molly Brunson’s Russian Realisms: Painting and Literature, 1830–1890. Venediktova’s study stands apart because it is concerned with the Western (Anglophone and Francophone) “bourgeois reader” and hence has little to say directly about the Russian reader, bourgeois or otherwise, except for an extensive footnote, which I will address shortly. The first 90 pages of Venediktova’s study is a tour de force that draws extensively on Western literary and cultural criticism and is perhaps most discernibly influenced by Franco Moretti’s seminal works on the novel and the bourgeoisie in literature and history.3 She impressively synthesizes cultural studies, reception theory, the sociology of literature, and pragmatics to model the image of the bourgeois reader and even more ambitiously, to model the relationship between the bourgeois reader and writer as one of collaborative co-creation.4 [End Page 378]
For Venediktova, as for Moretti, “bourgeois” as a designation encompasses widely divergent qualities, both positive and negative, and corresponds more to a structure of feeling or type of subjectivity that made the “bourgeois reader” the ideal reader/collaborator for an author who was also very likely bourgeois. Venediktova’s key concept in the context of capitalist modernity is “exchange,” both economic and emotional, material and immaterial. Market relations determined the role of professional writers as producers and the reading public as users/consumers, while publishers and booksellers acted as intermediaries who played an ambivalent but critical role in influencing the commercial and critical fate of a given work. In the case of literary production, the medium of exchange is without question material (currency, books, words) but ultimately immaterial—symbols, experience.5 For Venediktova, Adam Smith’s theory of economic exchange (the “invisible hand” of the free market) and of sympathy as the moral/emotional foundation of social relations provides a one-stop shop in conceptualizing the mechanism of literary exchange under the conditions of print capitalism: “Sympathy is the mechanism by which the subject makes others’ experience one’s own and relates to one’s own experience through another perspective” (40).6 With the erosion of traditional social structures and belief systems and the rise of unprecedented opportunities, there was a...