How to Qualify for Postcolonial Discourse

Here are the two typical conversations about Russia between a person living outside of it (A) and a person living inside of it (B):

1) A: “Everything here is like in the West (finally).” B is offended.

2) A: “Nothing here is like in the West (still).” B is offended.

Note that B is offended whatever A’s attitude may be, approving or critical, and whoever A is, a former Soviet émigré, a never-Soviet American, or a happy post-Russian Estonian.

Generally speaking, any cultural dialogue on Russia fits into these two models, and a dead end is only more or less succesfully masked. What can be done to make this dialogue more productive?

A would suggest, “B must quit being offended and start simply discussing the matter – agreeing or disagreeing within the given frame.” Conversely, B would say, “A must quit giving frames, quit his comparisons with the West, and shut up.”

This may sound naive, but there are others-other “Others,” to be more precise-who have made it.

An African American writer shares with us the following observation: because of his skin color, no white couple would leave a tip on the restaurant table near him. He knows the problem of distrust. “I know it, too!” the Russian writer screams.

His or her skin is not black, but in foreign embassies and by custom officers, he or she is invariably treated as a potential thief, beggar, or prostitute. He is the Other but has no Other’s rights, the most important of which is the right to speak for himself; the African American writer is given that right without question. Similarly, no man today would dare tell a woman who or what she is-that is for her to tell to him. When the Other is speaking, those who are not must be silent.

This policy was conceived outside of Russia. The strategy of proclaiming Russia a space for the West’s dreams to come true, “the subconscious of the West” (Boris Groys), though popular during its inception in the 19th century, is nothing more than banal now.

Its other versions have proven to be more theoretical and flexibile.The “Negritude” theory (formed in France in the 1930s) regarded the African as Europe’s Other and claimed that, for the world to achieve wholesomeness, it had to become “creolized,” because the Africans’ musicality, emotionality, and sexuality were the very qualities that Europe had suppressed. Meanwhile, such notions as “black = sexual,” or “black = emotional,” as expressed by whites, would be qualified as racist, and their perception of the African culture as exotic would be seen as reactionary, imperialistic and hierarchical. Thus, the identity of the speaker becomes crucial.

All this is easily applicable to Russian identity. There are, indeed, plenty of examples of how the West usurps the right to represent Russia and exploits it discursively. An ambitious theoretical statement from a Russian scholar is sometimes discouraged; often the only thing he can provide is a regional report, even in the best of cases. “Studying oysters, I am hardly interested in what they think about themselves,” an important Slavic scholar privately formulated. A Russian journalist is often disbelieved until a Western one emerges with a concurring opinion.

A Russian artist or filmmaker, in order to be interesting to the West, is often required to be different, exotic, and almost dangerous. His independence from Western (i.e. universal) standards, both moral and aesthetic, is easily labeled as nationalism, while his sincere interest in these norms (as by some over-serious filmmakers) makes him into something even worse-a banality.

The Western demand for the non-Western artist to keep from being different was long ago criticized as cultural imperialism. It is, however, exactly the opposite that has now become the more pressing problem.

The increasing demand for the Russian artist to be different (in a Western-predicted way), and to fight the cultural imperialism of Coca-Cola, Versace, Tarantino, and Baudrillard in order to show the “real Russia”-this is what is seen as the true cultural imperialism by those for whom the appropriation of everything mentioned above, just discovered by Russia, is nothing but the most authentic and original cultural experience.

The dialogue between Russia and the West is transformed thus into an engaging game: the Russian artist/critic/filmmaker tries to catch Western cultural authorities being self-centered, narrow-minded and repressive, while, more and more, the latter avenge themselves by ignoring Russians altogether, as not Other enough to warrant a voice. Many international exhibitions and film festivals are currently getting by without any Russian cultural products whatsoever.

So, does Russia have a chance to qualify for the post-colonial discourse, without which it has no chance at all?

Alas, the discourse of a cultural minority is hardly applicable to Russia. No Western outsider has ever defined Russia as the Other (as Negroes were defined as creatures of desire by the French).

Other status was in fact invented by Russia itself, and not because Russia was the object of racist statements, but because in the early 19th century it was not the object of any statements at all. According to philosophers, Russia simply came too late to the scene of world history to be fully appreciated.

This kind of complaint is still common in Russia, but the country yet has to prove that its rights have been repressed or that it is a minority in regards to the West, a difficult thing to do since the discourse of race differences within the white race has long been a taboo and probably will remain so. Finally, Russia still completely ignores its own political and cultural repressiveness of other cultures within and around it.

The states of the former Eastern bloc and former USSR, however, could attempt-and are successfully attempting-to receive the status of victims of Russia’s cultural imperialism. Thus, however paradoxical it may seem, the only chance for Russia is to adopt an Eastern European identity.

This would be an enormous step: the whole discourse of Eastern Europe was long seen as a threat to the discourse of Russia’s unique historical destiny. Similarly, the feminist discourse has trouble growing in Russia because the niche of a victim in the Russian worldview is already occupied by Russia itself.

In trying to distance itself from both the nationalistic strategies of contemporary Russian authorities and the Western cultural imperialism which denies Russians the right to speak for themselves, and at the same time seeking understanding from the leftist intelligentsia of the West, contemporary Russian unofficial culture-Moscow’s Arts Magazine (small but influential on the art scene), for example-suggests looking for the Russian identity not among superpowers but among minorities, and adopting the minorities’ discursive privileges in the process. Although this is a step forward, it is far from being unproblematic.

The theory of “Negritude” was not nearly the last stage of the African intellectuals’ self-realization. Criticism of “Negritude” produced the fundamentalist theory, according to which the African discourse is to be liberated of all traces of Western language and mentality by using the Western postmodern critique of universalism, big narrative, and ratio, and by then attacking this critique as a weapon of the whites.

This was seen as the only way to achieve non-hierarchical relations between whites and blacks. This theory, in turn, has been criticized for nationalism; it could be just as well criticized for “linguistic terrorism,” or even “structural terrorism,” for the way it transforms the world into a mix of atoms completely unrelated to each other.

The European question is of a similar nature: how to build a post-binary, non-totalitarian model of the world? Is globalization manifesting itself in atomic autonomy and endless difference?

Is there a limit to cultural relativism? Where are the boundaries of decentralization that afford each unit of the total structure with the right of the complete Other? Could there be a world consisting only of Others? Would language and understanding be possible in this world?

And could a world without any discursive repression, the repression of an external definition, be institutionally guaranteed? And can it be that the illusion of non-repressive cohabitation is hiding another repression-of those, still unknown, who have not yet been awarded the title of Others?

All illusions concerning decentralization and the possibility to abolish repression are dangerous. The “ecological feminism” that tries to liberate the “feminine” qualities (closeness, emotional intelligence, etc) from the repression of the male culture is itself extremely totalitarian, as it forces women to follow stereotypes (in art, in particular, they are often allowed to make nothing but feminist art).

Our goal should not be the “ecology of the East,” but the “critique of the East,” and all of the axiomatic definitions, whether of the East or the West, must be questioned.

Thus, I would offer the following agenda: reject the notion of the Other and learn to live in a world without Others; return to the geographical and historical definition of Eastern Europe as marginal, finding its identity in reality and not in myths or desires; integrate it into the West not as the Other, but as a part of the West’s historic experience (including, first of all, the communist experience); eliminate the Western monopoly on anti-hegemony statement and critique of the West; understand our own repressiveness.

And lastly: the place, which is neither the Western province, nor its subconscious, is not a paradise. Moreover, it does not provide guarantees against anything. But it does exist.

See also Margaret Dikovitskaya’s response, Does Russia Qualify for Postcolonial Discourse?

Ekaterina Dyogot is an art historian who lives and works in Moscow. Her latest book is entitled Russian Art in the XX. Century.