Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Ideology and the Infra-Thin


Sheila Fitzpatrick’s Everyday Stalinism (Oxford University Press, 1999) describes itself as a study of the emergence of a society that attempted to accustom itself to the pervasiveness of the Soviet state. With other histories of everyday life, it “shares . . . a focus on practice” (2) over ideational statement. This logic extends to the title of the book, in which “Stalinism” serves “as a shorthand for the complex of institutions, structures, and rituals that made up the habitat of Homo Sovieticus in the Stalin era” (3). The book's effort to register forms of life that express themselves in practices as much as in words and thereby to accumulate a more holistic sense of the experience of Stalinism, however, is immediately in tension with the idea of totalitarianism itself. Because “the state was a central and ubiquitous presence” in 1930s urban Russia, Fitzpatrick feels justified in “defin[ing] the ‘everyday’ for the purposes of this book in terms of everyday interactions that in some way involved the state” (3). But if the state was pervasive, as seems noncontroversial, then there should be no need for this restriction. If “an ideology is really ‘holding us’ only when we do not feel any opposition between it and reality—that is, when the ideology succeeds in determining the mode of our everyday experience of reality itself” (Zizek, Sublime Object of Ideology [Verso, 1989], 49), then everyday Stalinism would potentially reveal itself most in experiences that do not explicitly involve contact with the Soviet state. Poets engage this problem when they write in “dark times” about petty love affairs, window reflections, and the sky—such topics indicate neither evasion of the censors nor escapist imagination, but intent to document the inextricability of the political through the route of the hardest case. Even explicit ideologies of the imagination, such as Eugenio Montale’s claim that what was important about being a poet was that at any time, while standing in line at the post office, he was apt to think about something unconnected, some non sequitur (I promise to fill in this reference . . .), are remarkable for their assumption that in the twentieth century the occurrence of a disparate thought has become surprising. Since the zero degree of ideology remains amnesiac, the most unprepossessing exchanges that someone still feels like recording measure the “infra-thin”--Duchamp's term--distance between the interior and the limit of the state. (This returns us to the genius of photography and minimalism.)

Image: Andrei Tarkovsky, Myasnore, Polaroid; a view from his house in the town of Myasnore. More Tarkovsky Polaroids at film.guardian.co.uk

5 comments:

Donovan said...

Beautifully written post that I will dwell on for some time. I'm reminded naturally of Malevich but also the supposed disdain Lenin gestured to with suprematism, or Stalin with Rodchenko's photography--could intentions at reaching a an aesthetic realization of ideology in fact produce its irritant? Maybe the center of the state can sometimes constitute its own avant-garde...

RT said...

(Thank you.) Aesthetic realization of ideology--do you mean, the state's own aesthetics, i.e. state-sponsored aesthetics?

Donovan said...

Sorry for late reply to your question: I think (emphasis on think) I'm inquiring as to state-sponsored but also state...inspired? Ghosted? Infected?...Or perhaps even art as the manifestation of a new heightened/parodic state, a la Marinetti. I suppose I'm intrigued by your formulation of the "Center" in your final sentence, and its relationship vz your critique.

Donovan said...

EDIT: You utilize the term "interior," crucially dif't than "center," clearly.

RT said...

I don't know if very much has been written about the malevolent state's participation through infection in its own avant-garde, and certainly I haven't thought about that. I mean, works that would consider this not just as opposition or as symptom (rebound effect). It sounds as though you want something more productive and subtle than that, where damage (the impact of the state on the work) is also something productive, and that sounds rather new to me.