And the Winner Is…

Mikhail Berg, Literaturokratiia: Problema prisvoeniia I pereraspredeleniia vlasti v literature (Literaturocracy: Problems of Appropriation and Redistribution of Power in Literature). Moscow: NLO, 2000. 352 pages.

A colleague of mine once confronted me with a strange question: In terms of success and posterity, who did I think was the winner: Bakhtin or Academician Viktor Vinogradov?

In spite of the question’s absurdity, both of us seemed to understand perfectly well what it was about. In this imaginary literary race, my friend was betting on Bakhtin, whose speech genre theory gave him a life after death in worldwide recognition.

Purely out of a desire to contradict, I put my bet on Vinogradov. Look at what kind of signatures they used, I argued. Bakhtin signed his writing by the names of Voloshinov and Medvedev. Academician Viktor Vinogradov, on the other hand, once authored a certain text under the signature of Joseph Stalin. And the winner is. . .?

In reply to this non-bona-fide argument (I did want to win, after all), my friend should have asked me: Who measures-and with what measuring tape? He did not. But these are exactly the questions that I cannot help asking myself while reading Mikhail Berg’s research on literature and power.

He uses extensively the notions of success strategy; but how does one compare success quantitatively, and in what units?

Berg describes the failure of the Russian project of modernism in exactly those comparative terms, with an emphasis on innovation. In his estimation, for instance, Joyce appears more innovative than Sholokhov-hence, presumably, more “successful.”

As for Joyce, I really do not know if a life full of misery, homelessness, debts, drunkenness, blindness, and legal expenditures (to say nothing of a difficult wife and a mentally handicapped daughter) should be considered more successful than the life of a Nobel Prize winner (unlike Sholokhov, Joyce never got one), living well into a secure retirement, under the benevolent auspices of an omnipotent despot, in the paradise of an idyllic stanitsa.

Apart from the total and probably comparable volume of published work (and possibly apart from drunkenness), there is nothing to compare between the two. And whose project was more innovative, Joyce’s dealing with language, or Sholokhov’s with Stalin? I really do not know.

And further on, if one assumes Berg’s statement that poetics, artistic devices, traditions, etc. are merely arguments in the struggle for recognition, success, and domination, how does one know that Nabokov is more successful/innovative than Sergei Mikhalkov?

Describing the 1970s literary games between samizdat and the KGB, Berg makes an extremely interesting statement, en passant, that really prominent authors never got themselves arrested: “prominence” seems to have been a strategic measure against KGB’s terrorist methods.

In the meantime, the author Anatolii Marchenko died in prison after a hunger strike during the same year that Gorbachev terminated Sakharov’s exile in Gorky: Does this fact make him (as well as Sakharov, also an author) a “winner” or a “loser”?

Does the fact that Marchenko did get arrested testify to his literary unimportance? And what about such a prominent player of literary games as Gleb Pavlovskii, Putin’s notorious political technologist and an advocate of the theory of the end of literature (see his interviews on he a winner or a loser in Berg’s competition? He did get himself into trouble with the KGB in his time, but look how he flourishes now!

Probably, these questions should not be addressed to Mikhail Berg but to the sociology of literature at large. But Berg is not merely a sociologist: he is an author-turned-sociologist. A meaningful distinction in his own terms of reference, given the power of “literocentricism” in Russia that he is investigating.

In the foreword, Berg describes the genesis of his book as developing from an earlier collection of critical papers, not only “edited and equipped with a scientific apparatus” to qualify as a doctoral thesis, but also thoroughly rethought. As for “equipment,” this is quite impressive: a text of more than 300 pages containing over 600 footnotes, plus a 20-page-long bibliography.

The principles of such equipment in a number of cases were questionable to me, as was the very idea of superimposing “apparatus” over “facts,” but thisproblem deserves a lengthier analysis and is not, in general, the story that I want to tell in this review.

What I am telling is the story of my own reading of this book (a long and painful story, incidentally) and, consequently, an additional analysis of appropriation and redistribution of power whose mechanisms, according to Berg, amount to the strategies of attraction of investment of reader’s attention (a Bergian accumulation of genitive constructions). How I invested my attention should be of direct relevance to Berg’s research.

I am reading Berg’s story as an attempt of Lot’s wife to describe her impressions of the demise of Sodom. By the time Berg began his study, he says, he had lost any interest in postmodernism as an aesthetic phenomenon, and the transgression beyond postmodernism’s confines was a decided matter.

I wish all of us commanded such control over transgressions, confines, and aesthetic phenomena. Berg’s sociological analysis of the Russian belle-lettres appears, therefore, as a gesture of resolute goodbye. A man of letters transgresses/emigrates/flees from literature into anthropology and, moreover, from Russian literature into international anthropology. An intriguing beginning.

It is of importance that Berg hits on the virtual road of symbolic emigration not during the Soviet era, when he was influential as an exclusively sam– and tamizdat author (see, but in the very heat of the Russian emancipated, censorship-free 1990s.

A double emigration, as have I already said, not only away from a home in literature, into the alien realm of the academia, but also into Western academia (he obtained his doctoral degree from the University of Helsinki).

What is he seeking to achieve (or, perhaps, what is he seeking to get rid of?) on this double-bending line of flight? What is the force that squeezes Mikhail Berg, a renowned writer and literary critic, one of Russian literature’s legitimate actors, out into a territory where angels fear to tread?

The spectacle of the demise of her hometown of Sodom is so terrifying that Lot’s wife turns into a pillar. The picture that Berg is seeing in front of his (departing) eyes is no less epic: He is describing the demise of a symbolic revolution, the one that almost happened.

The appropriation/redistribution of power in literature is analyzed in this book in economic terms, as the appropriation and redirection of the flows of energy emitted by the Russian Word, (Slovo).

Berg traces the accumulation of this resource in the tumultuous period of the anthropological experiment during the early years of the Russian revolution.

Then, he depicts how this precious resource was “stolen” by Socialist realism and how this philosophy proved incapable of managing its potential properly (the phenomenon of “infantile literature”: unfortunately, in later chapters Berg drops the metaphor of “childishness” in the interpretation of literary production/reception and thus blocks his own way towards, for instance, a psychoanalytical interpretation).

At the stage of the Khruschev thaw that followed Stalinist misappropriation, we see unofficial (samizdat and tamizdat) authors devising strategies to undermine ideological censorship and reappropriate the almost degenerated Slovo (Berg is analyzing incidents in which censorship was involved in the political maintenance of Slovo, but not so much, unfortunately, in the exciting Soviet context).

Finally, a moment of revolution almost comes when conceptualism and “postmodernism” (I am using this term in quotation marks because its Russian contents are still unclear) succeed in snatching Slovo away from its Soviet “masters” (the KGB, political censorship, propaganda apparatchiks, but also, paradoxically enough, samizdat activists).

“Postmodernists” divest Slovo of its magic, subject it to devaluation through a number of gestures of ironic affirmation, and then relaunch Slovo into a market-dominated circulation. The moment of ultimate freedom seems to have arrived. Literocentricism-the use of sacral Slovo in the practices of political repression-is dead. Its very institutions-censorship committees, thick literary magazines’ editorial boards, and, probably, university departments of philology-lie in ruins.

But what happens to that precious resource, that Russian Slovo, as a consequence of such liberalization? By deconstructing the mechanisms employed bySlovo, “postmodernists,” instead of demolishing the citadel of literocentricism, succeed in creating new conditions of Slovo‘s hegemony. By demystifying Slovo, they also devise easy strategies for commercial languages to get hold of its energeia, they open up the way into the heart of Slovo.

Access to Slovo is thus granted to new capitalist players. These players manipulate language, but not at all as “postmodernists” do, for the sheer pleasure of the game itself. With them, the purpose is the extraction of immediate political and financial profits. Game over.

Symbolic revolution eating its own tail: perestroika (in the sense of “changing ranks”) brings about an upheaval of symbolic power but freedom never finds embodiment for itself in the form of autonomous literary practices.

The sacral Slovo of the Holy Russian Literature is dead, long live the new brand: “Slovo Light”; literocentricism-made-easy and manipulated by the literary nouveaux riches and black-marketeering smooth operators.

Lot’s wife really has evidence enough to transform her into a pillar of salt. Leaving aside the emotional part of this story, but also noting the fact that literocentricism, even though proclaimed deceased, seems to burgeon in Berg’s own conceptualization (as it does in this review, too), let us gratefully remember that a similar analysis was produced by two authors whose work Berg also interprets in his book: Vladimir Sorokin in his Blue Lard and Viktor Pelevin in Generation P.

Both are dealing, just like Berg does, with symbolic revolution and the ensuing degeneration of Slovo into a marketable commodity. Sorokin gives a more aestheticised, refined, “organic” explanation, exploring the political economy of Slovo in terms of its energy-freeing decay; Pelevin finds a more vulgar, but nonetheless convincing, explanation in the moral and economic corruption of Slovo‘s newly appointed users, the piar (PR).

Berg is dealing with a more difficult task (and the game he plays producing a piece of analytical nonfiction under the aegis of a Western university is more complex than Sorokin’s or Pelevin’s). His task seems to be the analysis of the fall of Slovo in the general context of the crisis of European logocentricism.

Which explains why he relies so heavily on postmodern literary theory and Habermasian social philosophy: Just as in early postmodern theorists (Lyotard with his fall of metanarratives, Fredric Jameson with his prison-house of language, etc.), his expectations of the revolution of Slovo are those of emancipation, and his disillusionment at the failure of the symbolic perestroika is therefore still more profound.

Berg’s analysis of the intimate connection between Slovo and power, especially as it is implemented in the institution of censorship, is extremely interesting and promising; however, there is a certain discrepancy between the word vlast as he defines it in the introduction and as he actually uses it in his own critical analysis of the Soviet and post-Soviet situation.

In one case, it reminds of an early Foucauldian usage with the reference to power’s nonhierarchical, pervasive “being everywhere”; in another (and quite contrary to the former one) it is a traditional Soviet euphemism denoting the authorities; in still another, especially in connection with literocentricism and the sacrality of Slovo, Berg’s usage borders on

Foucault’s later concept of governmentality; in still another context it is used as a synonym of visibility among the political elite and the mass media. Berg also features numerous interpretations of power as game playing-a concept that is also treated differently by such writers as, for instance, Bourdieu or Lyotard.

The reader often gets an impression that, for the author, distinctions between, let us say, Rubinstein and Bakstein appear more pronounced and more profound than distinctions between Habermas and Derrida or Giddens and Bataille.

A follower of Lotmanian semiotics, Berg is producing here a new modification of the binary opposition “Russia vs. the West”: a finely differentiated (politically as well as symbolically) network of various forms of “Russianness” against quite a uniform, homogenized field of “Western ideas.”

It is in the monolithic “West” that Berg seems to be seeking some ultimate, universal truth that would be equally “truthful” for all the variegation of domestic contexts. However, does any “West” in such a binary understanding exist at all? And what about such a “Russia,” then?

So, who wins- Bakhtin or Vinogradov? And how is the energeia of Slovo converted into the power of signature? Is it legitimate to evaluate a literary situation as one does a chess game or a party of preference (dvuxxodovka, a two-move-solution, is a chess term that Berg uses in one of his analyses.)

It is obvious that such questions are dangerous and we do not want, in their discussion, to be restricted merely to (very workable, to be sure) metaphors devised by Sorokin and Pelevin or, God forbid, to sink to those levels of theorization that are populated by the likenesses of Gleb Pavlovskii.

It is also obvious that a political/economic analysis of Soviet and post-Soviet literary games is an absolute must, one of the most urgent challenges on the agenda of the cultural archaeology of Slovo.

But no less obvious is the fact that the Russian language today is not quite ready for such a task, and it is still only developing instruments to cope with it.

Mikhail Berg’s book is an important contribution to the work of constructing a language that could perform a critical inquiry, including the critical inquiry into the “Western” languages of analysis and into the forms of translating such “Western” analytical languages into the Mother Tongue of Slovo.