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differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 13.1 (2002) 96-127

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The Seminar:
Mode d'emploi Impure Spaces in the Light of Late Totalitarianism

Miglena Nikolchina

To Stefan Marinov
In memoriam
I am Sybil and I tell you with brutality:
When something's talked about for too long,
It usually turns into reality.

(Stanev, "Predstavlenie i nakazanie"
[Performance and Punishment] 131)

Theory and terror

This essay will address the private/public division in the light of a phenomenon that emerged as a major feature of the last decade of the communist regime in Bulgaria and that came to be designated as "the seminar."

The seminar? In Bulgaria? Over ten years ago? Who would care about this? Yet over and beyond the nostalgia that drives the survivors into incessant squabbling over the fossils of the seminar, 1 there is the major mystery that the seminar—from its restricted, elitist inception in the late '70s to its spilling over from the bursting university auditoriums into street action and clashes with the police in the spring and summer of 1989—was produced as the dominant trajectory of the crumbling of totalitarian power. Thus, if we cannot say that the seminar brought down the totalitarian regime—although what did? there is no definitive answer yet—we can say for certain that the regime in Bulgaria brought along the seminar as the one major symptom of its demise. The seminar makes us face the enigma of an indomitable political, economic, and military machine disintegrated by discourse: by "glasnost," or—to put Gorbachev's [End Page 96] unwittingly lethal term literally—by "voicing," i.e., by the reverberation of sound in space. 2

Immediately I have to add that there was something very specific about this reverberation so that even when, at its most lyrical, the seminar decided to sing, the result was the opera "Wittgenstein," with Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein singing along with the native apparatchik sociologist Iribadjakov (all of them impersonated by seminar participants) and the chorus of "atomic facts" chanting "where is the soup?" (The soup, as well as the freedom of speech, was never quite there.) The specificity, in short, of this deadly resonance, of this Jericho terror that brought the walls tumbling down, was that it was theoretical. The Bolshevik Revolution and its later East European editions was theory turned into terror. The glasnost extremism enacted the downfall of terror as theory. Through a curious move that reversed the actualization of theory into the terror of totalitarianism, the end of totalitarian terror took a theoretical turn.

What made it possible to bring about the demise of a regime by theory (if we assume that this is, indeed, what happened) was the very structuring of the regime as total discursive control. Discursive control secures the prerogative of a particular discourse to emanate reality. The surest way for a discourse to be reality is through enforcing itself as the only discourse there is. Through discursive control, the regime effected what it said to be equivalent to what was: the result was an ontological confusion where ideological statements took the form of factories and factories produced poems. 3

This maneuver, however—the positing of a power as discursive monopoly—makes it very vulnerable to the proliferation of discourses. Hence, the status of intellectuals. Intellectuals were plentifully manufactured by the regime in order to, on the one hand, keep up its discursive monopoly through the constant maintenance of the master discourse. They were organized in paramilitary unions and were monitored closely by the secret police, with which they had to engage in discussions of neo-Hegelianism, for example. On the other hand, they had to exemplify the dangers of transgressing, if ever so little, the rules of the one language game that was allowed. The regime needed dissidents. The punishment of dissidents ensured the observance of the fundamental law: "Thou shalt speak as thou shalt speak."

Seen in this perspective, the seminar appears enmeshed in paradoxes because it inhabited the discursive machine it was trying...


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pp. 96-127
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Archived 2004
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