ULBANDUS XVII - A Culture of Institutions / Institutions of Culture
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Always institutionalize! This slogan—following on Fredric Jameson’s call to “always historicize”—could be the mantra of the following issue of Ulbandus. Each of the essays presented here works against an oversimplified model of culture, against a clean duality of artists and audiences. That imagined duality often focuses on the internal dynamics of works of art, on the one hand, and their reception by an aesthetically sophisticated reader or viewer, on the other, skipping everything in between. The authors featured here add nuance such a picture, arguing that what we call “culture” emerges not simply from the internal complexities of artworks, but also out of an entanglement of institutional and personal interests. These authors are concerned above all with the in-between spaces, the backroom power plays, market forces, or (self-)censorship practices that do not necessarily write words on a page or put brush to canvas, but that are nevertheless integral to how culture is produced, distributed, received, and remembered. In fact, the English word “culture” contains two definitions which are worth separating here: first, culture as a synonym for “the arts,” and second, culture as a grouping of people, institutions, and interests with shared or similar values. In these pages we see how culture (in the first definition) emerges from and interacts with a culture (in the second).
Take the cover image for this issue. Look closely and you’ll see a set of initials inscribed on the lower right. They indicate the original creator, a minor graphic artist named Henrik Glauber. Glauber produced relatively few works in his lifetime and never rose to cultural prominence. His work has never been collected, and he appears only as a footnote, if at all, in histories and anthologies of the various movements around him. But this image was printed on the cover of a 1923 issue of the Hungarian avant-garde journal MA (“Today”), published by Lajos Kassák. One of Hungary’s most prolific and connected artists of the twentieth century, Kassák was an institution in and of himself. He carried on correspondence with artists and writers from France to Russia and collected pearls of the pan-European avant-garde in the pages of MA. Today he is so associated with the broader movements of his time that the Lajos Kassák Museum in Budapest has become a center for the study of the avant-garde at large, both within Hungary and beyond. It is this museum that holds the cover image made by Glauber, and it is through the museum’s generous cooperation that it appears on the cover of Ulbandus. This reprinted image, and your contemplation of it, represents a discrete instance of cultural reception, and one brought about almost entirely by institutional forces. The piece was printed on the cover of MA, distributed as a part of the journal, and preserved in the archives of a museum whose mission is not explicitly related to the actual human artist who created the original piece. So who is the author of this image and its appearance on our cover? Is it Henrik Glauber, who arranged lines and blocks of colors into a compelling composition, or is it all the various forces that brought those lines and colors to us?
By raising such questions, an institutional perspective destabilizes the centrality of single-subject authorship in our understanding of art and the process of meaning-creation. For this reason, the essays in this issue are organized thematically, rather than by the chronology or geography of their subject matter. Opening the issue are three essays by Kirill Zubkov, Gábor Danyi, and Ilaria Sicari about the mutual dependencies of criticism and censorship. Next come essays by Basil Lvoff, Liza Mankovskaya, and Marina Kaganova that explore market forces and their influence on various forms of cultural reception and consumption. The final section looks at the process of cultural production, with essays by Sophie Pinkham, Evgeniya Vorobyeva and myself focusing on the transformations of the various mechanisms that bridge conception and reception, creation and publication. Each thematic section collects a variety of subject matter from various eras and cultures within the expanded region our journal now considers. The thematic organization presented here is only one possible way to shuffle these themes. Each essay speaks to many others in various and unexpected ways. This introduction, for instance, suggests a different set of connections, considering each essay as it connects to a larger argument about decentering single-authorship in received notions of cultural production.
Though some essays in this volume do focus on a single author, even these undermine the notion of authorial control, pointing out how censors, critics, and broader cultural forces subvert meanings or redirect interpretation. In Ilaria Sicari’s article on the reception of Italo Calvino’s works in the Soviet Union, for instance, the original novelist is mostly absent, preferring to stay home in Italy. Instead, the true subjects are the editors, critics, and publishers who remade Calvino into the author that Soviet readers needed at the time. Sicari discusses how one Soviet editor even took the bold step of writing an introduction in the voice of one of Calvino’s characters. This introductory vignette, signed with the character’s name in place of the editor’s, radically blurs the line between text and paratext, between author and critic. The resulting volume, with introduction and translated text both in the voice of a single character, can hardly be considered Calvino’s work alone. Instead it is a coercive reframing which derives its authority from the very image of single-authorship that it simultaneously undermines.
Such convoluted entanglements, often found under the various iterations of state socialism, provide an especially rich field for institutional investigations. It is perhaps no coincidence that many of our authors chose to focus on the Soviet Union and its satellite states. For much of the twentieth century, pervasive state structures with explicit ideological agendas dominated the institutional landscapes of Eastern Europe and Eurasia. Many kept careful records, which have been preserved in accessible archives, and which have informed and enriched the studies presented here. In this way, the Slavic, East European, and Eurasian experience casts the role of cultural institutions in especially sharp focus, bringing to the surface many of the forces that lurk just out of sight in much of the rest of the world.
At the same time, socialism created unique institutional and cultural contexts that in many ways contrast with practices elsewhere in the world, especially in the capitalist West. As an explicitly revolutionary and populist ideology, state socialism, and especially its Bolshevik incarnation, attempted to counteract market forces. Soviet cultural institutions—followed by those of other socialist states—worked to bring together mass and elite cultures into a unified aesthetic that would entertain while also explicitly shaping the psychologies and life practices of a new type of citizenry. For this reason, many of the most influential analyses of Western cultural institutions, from Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s critique of the culture industry to Pierre Bourdieu’s field theory, require adjustments as they cross the iron curtain. Careful attention to the specifics of cultural practice under socialism can complicate these models in productive ways and push us to consider alternatives.
For instance, as Gábor Danyi investigates the pre-publication vicissitudes of József Lengyel’s novel Confrontation (1966), he finds himself moving away from Bourdieu. Proposing an alternative, Danyi frames censorship as a “social interaction” that can produce contested and mutually contradictory readings of a text before that text reaches print. In the case of Lengyel’s novel, three such contradictory readings eventually produced three separate texts—one printed as tamizdat, another in fragmentary form, and a third in what was called “official samizdat,” that is, a private printing only for party elites. Here, censorship negotiations did not produce a single version, what Bourdieu called a “compromise formation,” but rather produced three distinct compromise formations, reflecting the fractured nature of censorship practice.
Basil Lvoff’s reconsideration of the Formalist critics also leads him away from familiar Western models of mass culture towards the formulation of an alternative methodology. Too often remembered as a Russian version of New Criticism (close reading, intentional fallacies, literature as divorced from the world), the Formalists, in Lvoff’s retelling, actually have a much more expansive approach to offer. Shklovsky’s early focus on internal textual devices should not be seen as the arrogance of an essentialist, but rather the caution of a careful scholar: “We just do not discuss that which we do not (yet) understand,” he wrote in 1919. In the following decades, Shklovsky and colleagues Boris Eikhenbaum and Yuri Tynianov widened their lens, investigating not only meaning-creation within texts, but also the extra-textual mechanisms that brought certain works to prominence. Lvoff suggests that the Formalists’ investigations of the 1920s and 1930s can be seen as a potential alternative to more familiar Frankfurt School studies of mass culture. Going even further, Lvoff argues that, considering the challenges facing humanities scholarship today (especially digital humanities and big data), the methodologies developed by the Formalists might be best poised to lead us into the future.
Alongside Lvoff’s, several other contributions are immediately relevant to contemporary issues. Evgeniya Vorobyeva’s look at the state of “thick” literary journals in today’s Russia suggests a paradoxical situation in which such journals are all but disappearing from the literary landscape, but are still seen as exercising an outsized influence on the field. Based on an extensive survey of journal editors and authors, Vorobyeva finds these journals to be an institution that “no one needs anymore,” but that is still “essential for literature.” Marina Kaganova’s evocative and lyrical essay on the development of tourism in a Georgian mountain region shows how the ghosts of past ways of life and past traumas still haunt Svaneti. The neoliberal tourist industry, Kaganova demonstrates, has not so much chased away the ghosts of Svaneti’s past as it has coopted them towards its own ends, refashioning an often painful history as a bright and Westernized vision of the future.
As Eastern Europe and Eurasia move away from the explicit ideology of state socialism towards more fragmented, subtle, and differentiated institutional landscapes, it becomes more difficult, and therefore all the more important to pay close attention to how institutions interact with culture. During the 1990s cultural fields throughout the region shed most of their socialist trappings and developed new institutions, often based on imported political values, new market principles, or the emergent prestige economy. Though these structures often arose without direct government involvement, the increasingly hands-on policies of, for instance, Vladimir Medinskii’s Ministry of Culture in Russia and the rise of right wing administrations in places like Poland and Hungary show how interested governments can quickly and effectively involve themselves in the cultural fields. In each of these cases, newly empowered state bodies have chosen not to disrupt the cultural landscape with sweeping reforms—as was more often the case with the rise of state socialism. Instead, they have inserted themselves within already existing structures, asserting their authority without disrupting the apparently organic development of the cultural field.
To take an example from Russian literature, one can point to the subtle workings of organizations like Read.Russia. Tasked with advo-cating for translated Russian literature abroad, the government-financed Read.Russia organizes the country’s participation at international book fairs, collaborates with publishers abroad, and, crucially, chooses which books and authors to promote. Read.Russia does not exercise censorship and it supports authors of a relatively broad range of political viewpoints. One promotional video, for instance, features the liberal pluralist author Liudmila Ulitskaya discussing the work of the avowed Stalinist Zakhar Prilepin. Even though she strongly disagrees with his politics, Ulitskaya says on camera, she can respect his prose. What Read.Russia’s authors have in common is a bent toward plot-driven novels in the realist tradition, or what editor Elena Shubina calls “contemporary classics.” Missing from the Read.Russia booths are more experimental works like Keti Chukhrov’s Love Machines (2013) or the poetry of Kirill Medvedev or Aleksandr Skidan. Given the relative obscurity of these authors within Russia, it is perhaps no surprise that Read.Russia does not invest in their promotion. The organization, it seems, takes its cues from the preferences of the market itself. But by asserting control over how those market preferences are interpreted and disseminated abroad, Read.Russia helps determine how Russian literature is seen, translated, and read around the world, all the while avoiding explicit interference in the operations of the free market.
Such mechanisms work more subtly than their twentieth-century predecessors, veiling current cultural landscapes in a market-based obscurity that seems difficult to analyze from the outside but proves disconcertingly easy to manipulate from within. The essays in this volume, especially those that investigate institutions of the past, provide valuable perspective on the historically recurring roles of institutional factors in shaping our experience of culture, and therefore our understanding of the world around us. As these institutions adjust and transform across time, a historical perspective can become increasingly relevant.
For instance, potential contemporary parallels suggest themselves just beneath the surface of Kirill Zubkov’s essay on the intimate relationship between literary criticism and censorship in nineteenth-century Russia. Among the essay’s heroes (or antiheroes) is Ivan Goncharov, author of the great realist novel Oblomov and, less famously, of many censorship reports on his fellow litterateurs. Zubkov shows how censors like Goncharov imported techniques of close reading and aesthetic argumentation from professional literary criticism into the practice of censorship. Despite the censor’s explicit authority to ban works without recourse to aesthetic reasoning, Zubkov finds, the techniques of literary polemics brought much-needed cultural legitimacy to censorship as an institution. Armed with new technologies of reading and rhetoric, the censors soon went after the “thick” literary journals; that is, they attacked the very organs of literary criticism from which they had learned to sharpen their craft.
Sophie Pikham’s intimate retrospective of the 1979 Metropol affair reveals a slightly different relationship between censorship, authors, and critics. Based on extensive interviews conducted in 2013, Pinkham reconstructs the genesis and aftermath of the scandalous literary almanac, which attempted to find a third path between dissidence and Party loyalty by demanding publication of “works that did not fit established molds” but which were not explicitly banned. Pinkham shows how the debate that erupted around the almanac sorted its participants into familiar binaries of loyalists and opposition, and how the “third way” which the editors had sought all but disappeared. In Pinkham’s reading—as in Zubkov’s essay—the rhetoric of literary criticism worked alongside censorship, legitimating, on aesthetic grounds, the restriction of politically undesirable publications.
In these essays, we see how the categories and rhetoric of aesthetic debate can serve to reinforce and strengthen state authority. What emerges is something of an inversion of Jürgen Habermas’s optimistic account of the “public sphere” in Western Europe. In Habermas’s telling, bourgeois literary culture beginning in the late seventeenth century cultivated self-reflection and rational critical debate, which led “to the more properly civic tasks of a society engaged in critical public debates.” Through literary polemics, the new bourgeois public sphere learned to demand rights, “regulate civil society,” and even “challenge the established authority of the monarch.” In contrast, Zubkov and Pinkham’s accounts both show how the techniques of reasoned literary debate brought more legitimacy to state authority and weakened the possibilities for opposition. Literary culture, in other words, reinforced state power rather than forming an articulate counterweight to power in a public sphere.
Creating such a public sphere once again became a central concern after the Soviet Union fell and Western interests clamored to build a “civil society” that would smooth the transition to democracy and capitalism. Here, once again, institutional factors aligned in unexpected ways. As Liza Mankovskaya shows, perhaps one of the more effective projects aiding the transition had nothing to do with pro-democracy Western groups, but was a series of television advertisements for the newly founded Imperial Bank. Directed by Timur Bekmambetov, each of the commercials recreated an iconic moment in history apparently unrelated to banking. Though the commercials did not seem to drive much business to the bank, which filed for bankruptcy in 1999, Mankovskaya argues, they were nevertheless a resounding success. By downplaying the importance of money and emphasizing long-term historical continuity, the commercials eased the transition to capitalism and provided audiences with historical antecedents that helped in coping with the traumas of the 1990s. Furthermore, the widespread popularity of the commercials produced loose groupings based around common aesthetic experience, such that anecdotes and quotes from the commercials took on a folkloric significance in some circles and produced the kind of collectivities that had been atomized over the preceding decade.
My own contribution, in which I interview the contemporary Ural writer Aleksei Ivanov, shows an author who explicitly aspires to create just such collectivities through his work. Ivanov’s bestselling novels The Heart of the Parma (2003) and The Gold of the Rebellion (2005) combine deep geographical and historical research with elements of the supernatural in a way that encourages audience engagement beyond the reading experience. Ivanov says that he builds his novels with an eye to such “interactivity,” constructing each work “like a corporation,” which readers are encouraged to join. Within that corporation, they will find not only the novel, but also ancillary works of non-fiction, film and video-game adaptations, and immersive experiences that recreate aspects of the novels’ worlds.
As I focus on a single author in this interview, I am fully aware that I began this introduction questioning just such an approach. But Ivanov has so internalized the vocabulary and values of the capitalist market and globalized entertainment that the hours I spent in conversation with him became a veritable self-analysis along institutional lines. Contemporary authors are expected to be conversant in brand management and marketing strategies, not to mention prize competitions, film adaptations, and the construction of their public personae. This baring of the device—exemplified by Ivanov—suggests authors explicitly taking control of the institutional environment that shapes their work. At the same time, it points to the need for deeper analysis. As authors learn how to navigate the various institutions directly around them, we might be tempted to once again subscribe to a vision of an author in full control of her work, reception, and interpretation. But this is always a fantasy. No matter how well an author manipulates the mechanisms around her, there are always more layers of contingency and more institutional circumstances to disentangle.
It has been my pleasure as editor to work with all the authors included here, especially the many young scholars from the regions and cultures our journal often takes as our subject, but too rarely gives direct voice. The diversity of voices and richness of perspectives is this volume’s greatest strength. This issue of Ulbandus also revives the long-dormant tradition of reviewing recent publications in our field and our region, and I would like to thank the reviewers for their insightful readings. I would also like to thank the many co-editors and copy editors who have helped create this issue of Ulbandus. They include: Molly Rose Avila, Marlow Davis, Irina Denischenko, Erica Stone Drennan, Michael Gluck, Genevieve Guzman, William Hanlon, Robyn Miller Jensen, Inna Kapilevich, Dominic Leach, Holly Myers, Brendan Nieubuurt, and Emily Traverse. Thank you also to Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler for his wonderful translation of Evgeniya Vorobyeva’s article. Special thanks to John Laqua and Elsie Martinez and the whole Columbia University Slavic Department whose support in publishing Ulbandus has extended over almost four decades. Without the Department and the generous support of the Friends of Ulbandus (many of whom are affiliated with Columbia Slavic) this wonderful publication would not be possible.
Finally, we would like to acknowledge the enormous debt of gratitude both this journal and our entire department owe to two beloved faculty members who passed away as this issue was being prepared for publication. Over their many decades of service to this department and to the Slavic field at large, both Frank J. Miller and Catharine Theimer Nepomnyashchy worked through and between institutions to bring colleagues into closer contact, to strengthen individual relationships, and to enrich scholarship. Both were at different times presidents of AATSEEL and chairs of our department. Both fully embodied the profession as engaging teachers, leading scholars, and able administrators. A forthcoming issue of Ulbandus will be fully dedicated to Cathy Nepomnyashchy, who along with Michael Naydan, started this journal in 1976. And so it is with deep affection, respect, and sadness at his loss that this issue is dedicated to the memory of Frank J. Miller. Frank’s sense of humor, his devotion to his students, both graduate and undergraduate, his seemingly endless productivity and energy—just in the last five years, he complemented his classic intermediate textbook V puti: Russian Grammar in Context with full beginning and advanced courses—made him an ideally rounded teacher, colleague, and friend. But it is Frank’s simple presence that I will miss most of all. Frank was always there, always available, ready to answer a question about arcane grammar, tell a joke, or reminisce about any of his various experiences in Russia and across the Slavic field in America. Even with all the demands on his time, Frank prioritized being present. And for this reason, his absence is especially acute. He will be missed.
Full Table of Contents for this issue
 NB: Also (though with a slightly different meaning) the unofficial policy for dealing with late-Soviet dissidents.
 I borrow the term from James F. English’s study The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2005). For an exploration of prize culture in post-Soviet Russia, see Natalia Ivanova, Nevesta Bukera: Kriticheskii uroven’ 2003/2004 (Moscow: Vremia 2005).
 Columbia University Press is working with Read.Russia on one hundred volumes of new translations from Russian. Neither Ulbandus, the Department of Slavic Languages, nor this author has any direct involvement in that project.
 Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, Thomas Burger, trans. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989).