When the Soviet Union fell apart at the start of the 1990s, it seemed to many that social transformation and aesthetic revolution were in full synchronicity. What was left of the stuffy orthodoxy of Soviet culture and its official style of socialist realism was swept away, and the unofficial art and writing that had been developing for years in the underground and in alternative social spaces burst into public view. The styles and theoretical configurations of the new era in Russia were broadly varied, but the most prominent aesthetic banner and self-evident emblem of the day were undoubtedly those of the postmodern. And although there were many poets who emerged into the newly forming publics of post-Soviet Russia, Aleksandr Skidan, to whom this feature is dedicated, is certainly among the most significant whose appearance on the scene may be identified precisely with this moment.
Carrying the traditions of the late-Soviet artistic underground forward into the new era, Skidan worked from the late 1980s to 2002 as a stoker in a boiler room while devoting himself to wide-ranging reading in literature and philosophy and gaining prominence as a poet, critic, and translator of fiction and poetry (by Susan Howe, Kathy Acker) as well as theoretical works (by Paul de Man, J. Hillis Miller, Jean-Luc Nancy, Paolo Virno, Gerald Raunig). During these years, he became a central figure in the St. Petersburg experimental poetry scene and formed a close friendship with its elder statesman, Arkadii Dragomoshchenko. Like Dragomoshchenko, but in an absolutely unique manner, Skidan’s writing of this period can be tracked against the principles of postmodern and conceptualist writing: self-conscious, often ironic reflections on the crafted nature of social reality, human subjectivity, and literary discourse, informed by readings in poststructuralist critical theory, framed from a distanced position of inheritance of all previous literary and philosophical traditions. Skidan’s poetry of the 1990s offered an intricate web of literary and philosophical allusions, found discourse, and acute social observation.
Around the turn of the new century, something happened to Russia’s social and political landscape. Something happened to postmodernism, too. Both of those conjunctures might be described as turns to the right. Not uncoincidentally, at about that same time Skidan arrived at a major turning point in his aesthetic orientation — a turn to the left. The era of ascendant postmodernism was coming to an end everywhere, under the combined weight, on one hand, of the exhaustion of familiar tropes that too frequently reduced towards an arch, self-satisfied metaliterary sophistication, and on the other, of the convergence of a “postmodernist sensibility” with a new style of political image-making and management of public opinion. In the context of the US, one may recall Karl Rove’s smug explanation to Ron Suskind that the Bush administration could “create its own reality.” In Russia, such a “postmodern” conception of politics was realized in a more pernicious and thorough manner. Since Putin’s rise to power at the turn of the millennium, Russian political life has been subject to masterful if not total manipulation, effected by a state monopoly on the mass media and an army of what are baldly referred to as “political technologists.”
In this environment, Skidan began to read the Marxist critical tradition in a systematic manner and to identify both his aesthetic and his critical projects with leftist thought. For a Russian of his generation, whose biographical experience was shaped by the decay and collapse of Soviet state socialism, this was a profound shift in orientation. Although leftist critical thinkers from Benjamin to Adorno had formed a part of Skidan’s theoretical curriculum of the 1990s, Marxist writings about the political per se had not been at the top of his reading list. Yet firsthand experience of the marketization of literature, in tandem with the arrival of postmodern politics, Russian style, drove Skidan to redefine his own aesthetic and political positions. As he wrote in a 2003 manifesto, “Theses Toward the Politicization of Art”:
Management, marketing, and various technologies of manipulation arise in place of politics in the classical sense. The term “electorate,” borrowed from sociology, appears as both sign and agent of this tendency. The public sphere is flattened out in front of our eyes, as the ideology of the market subordinates everything to itself — including cultural production. […] We confront economic and political contradictions, the interests of various social groups, but instead of resolving or representing them, we channel them into a Gesamtkunstwerk — into a spectacle. This is the fundamental principle of fascistic art. At a certain point — by means of new media and electronic mass-media — it converges with the spectacle, in Guy Debord’s understanding of this term.
Skidan calls on art and literature to respond to this state of affairs. Politicized art, in his terms:
… is art that by means of the caesura, defamiliarization, self-reflection, fragmentariness, and the decomposition of narrative allows one to discover the asemantic gaps, the folds in meaning that have not yet been colonized by ideology. This is art that inserts spectators and readers into the process of co-authorship, of becoming, and in this way leads them to an understanding of their ties with the bodies and consciousnesses of others.
As these comments make clear, Skidan’s turn leftward was not so much a renunciation of his previous aesthetic positions, but rather their rotation around the axis of the political and their dialectical transcendence, in order to sharpen their directedness towards a focused opposition to “postmodern” management of political and economic life.
Skidan’s new orientation came to full fruition with his collection Red Shifting, for which he was awarded the Andrey Bely Prize in 2006 — Russia’s oldest nonstate literary award, which dates to the unofficial culture of late-Soviet Leningrad; the book was published in English translation in 2008. It has been expressed as well in his critical writing and in his ongoing collaborations with a network of other Russian philosophers, critics, and creative authors who also turned their attention to Marxism in the 2000s and 2010s, many of whom have come together in the What Is To Be Done? collective.
The present feature includes an interview that I conducted with Skidan in October, 2016, as well as fresh translations of two poems that date to the late 1990s. These renderings of Skidan’s texts in English, carried out by Charles Bernstein, Marijeta Bozovic, Catherine Ciepiela, Ariel Resnikoff, Stephanie Sandler, Val Vinokour, and Matvei Yankelevich, in collaboration with Skidan himself, result from work that began at the 2015 Your Language My Ear Symposium at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kelly Writers House. Your Language My Ear pursues a hybrid virtual and physical practice that brings translators and authors together in an intensive workshop format, but also supports extended remote interaction before and after this meeting via a document cloud.
Both of the poems published here belong to a cycle that Skidan wrote in the 1990s, devoted to meditations on classic works of European cinema — in the case of these two poems in particular, Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou (1965). In the manifesto cited above, Skidan identifies the latter of these films, along with Godard’s other early works, as an example of the kind of politicized art to which he aspires: “This is a Brechtian, Benjaminian break in the aesthetic fabric, a break that turns us towards reality and from reality back once again to art, asking the question: what is art, and where is the border between the public and the intimate?” In the interview published here, consideration of these poems and the films to which they respond — from a perspective twenty years after their composition — serves as a springboard into a discussion of Skidan’s evolving views of poetry, critical writing, politics, and postmodern aesthetics over the course of his career.
1. For more about Skidan, see his page on PennSound, which includes readings and also an appearance on Charles Bernstein’s radio show and podcast Close Listening.
2. Ron Suskind, “Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush,” The New York Times Magazine, October 17, 2004.
3. Aleksandr Skidan, “Tesizy k politizatsii iskusstva,” Chto delat’? 1 (2003).