Kevin M. F. Platt and Aleksandr Skidan in conversation

Photo of Aleksandr Skidan by Charles Bernstein.

Note: Aleksandr Skidan was born in Leningrad in 1965. He worked from the late 1980s through the 1990s as a stoker in a boiler room while becoming known for his innovative poetry, critical writings, and translations of contemporary American poetry and important works of critical theory. Yet such a grammatically proper enumeration of Skidan’s several distinct literary activities risks eliding the central feature of his work, which characteristically blends poetry with philosophy and one language with another, breaking the rules of genre, grammar, and lexicon, or perhaps making new ones. Still based in St. Petersburg, he is currently the poetry editor for New Literary Observer journal and a member of the collective What Is To Be Done? (Chto Delat’?), a band of creative and critical writers dedicated to a theoretically acute and nonsystemic Marxism. His most recent Russian poetry collection is Membra disjecta (2015), and his most recent book of critical essays is Theses Toward Politicization of Art (2014). He has received much recognition, including the prestigious Andrey Bely Prize in poetry for the collection Red Shifting (2006), which was later published in 2008 in English translation by Ugly Duckling Presse.

The conversation published here took place on October 15, 2016, in the Wexler Studio at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kelly Writers House. The following is my translation of the interview, which took place in Russian. In our conversation, we discuss Skidan’s cycle of poems from the 1990s that arose out of his responses to prominent works of European cinema. Translations of two of these poems were generated at the Your Language My Ear poetry translation symposium held at Kelly Writers House in 2015, and they are published parallel to this interview. Recordings of the interview, as well as of Skidan reading the poems in the original, and of me reading the translations, are available via the PennSound portal. — Kevin M. F. Platt

Kevin Platt: I’m sitting in the Wexler Studio at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kelly Writers House with Aleksandr Skidan, a poet and writer who has travelled to be with us here for a public reading of his works. Today is October 15 [2016] and we will discuss a set of texts that will be published in translation in Jacket2, the online poetry journal based here at Penn. Both of these texts, “Kino Eye” and “Pierrot le Fou,” are quite obviously connected with film, and so for a start, Aleksandr, let’s discuss why you chose precisely these two films. What attracted your attention in them?[1]

Aleksandr Skidan: Things will be more comprehensible if we stake out the broader context first. At the end of the 1990s I wrote a whole cinema-cycle that was published in the book In the Re-reading [V povtornom chtenii, 1998], which includes texts about other films as well — in particular about Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris [1972] and Antonioni’s Blowup [1966]. And I wrote them because I began to feel, approximately in the middle 1990s, that I had exhausted the style I was writing in earlier. The crux of my sense of crisis was the long poem “Piercing in Lower Lip” that I wrote in 1995. This was a sort of ironic mix of a confessional and extremely self-reflexive mode with parodic proto-postmodernist writing in the spirit of Eliot’s The Waste Land, which as early as the 1980s exerted a strong influence over me as a model of polyphonic expression. And then in the middle 1990s I understood that this path was over, at least for me, that I couldn’t move forward anymore, and I started looking for some kind of more objective forms.

In my search for these more objective forms — not subjective, not lyric — I arrived at film. In part, I explained this to myself as an emulation of Rilke’s movement from his early works to his New Poems, for which he took the descriptive method as his basis. He described sculptures, works of art, and architecture, by the same token shifting the “I,” the subject of the utterance, into the background, placing it in parentheses. I was aiming for something similar in the sense that I needed to grab hold of something material, subject to physical sensation — something that would allow me to take the position of an external, detached observer and therefore to escape “direct” lyric confessional writing. And that’s what brought me to cinema. 

A point of interest, though, is that all of these poems were written from memory. I didn’t watch the films again before I started to write. That is to say: this is also the phantasmatic work of memory, a reconstruction. There are inaccuracies with regard to the narrative, the fabric of the film. It was important for me to work with the imagination, with my own memory, but at a distance. And film, a great film like Aguirre, the Wrath of God … 

Platt: These were all great films of the European canon, right?

Skidan: Yes, they are all canonical films, and they allowed me to try out this new, objective, seemingly neutral, or pseudoneutral, distanced form of writing. 

Platt: All the same, the speakers in these poems — although, of course, there is also lyricism here, and a lyrical subject, there is “you” — differ to some extent from the typical lyric protagonist. It’s a position, probably, with greater similarity to a critic’s identity — a critical, rather than a lyric voice. Would that be fair?

Skidan: I agree. The interest here lies in the energy of error, as Shklovsky said, following after Tolstoy: when you set yourself one task, pursue one goal, but in the process of work you arrive at something different. At first, I thought that I should occupy an objective, neutral position and simply describe the film.

Platt: As you recalled it.

Skidan: It was something like an experiment on myself, an attempt to carry out a phenomenological reduction.

Platt: This reminds me of a story about Borges, about how he couldn’t find his own authorial voice until he began writing the works about which he would like to write as a critic, from the point of view of a critical observer. 

Skidan: That’s an interesting parallel. Something similar happened here. Somewhere at an underlying level (and I had already published the book of essays Critical Mass at this point) I was interested in trying to combine the critical mode with the lyric — and here the lyrical mode was placed under the sign of critical writing. The critical essay entered into a sort of symbiosis with poetic utterance, and this, it seems to me, was something new for Russian poetry. 

Platt: You frequently have written and continue to write critical essays about cinema. But given this symbiosis of a critical with a lyric or poetic approach, is there, all the same, a distinction between what you can do in a poem and what you do in an essay, or is there no difference for you? How do the two things, the two modes, combine for you?

Skidan: Actually, one of my first critical publications was about cinema in one of the first issues of the journal Séance — I think that was in 1990 or 1991, when they asked me to write about Bertolucci’s film The Sheltering Sky (1990), based on Paul Bowles’s novel — a novel that I later — ten years later — translated. This was an essay, but in an extremely lyrical form, because the film had hit me hard, and when I came to write about it, I tried not to conceal the points of self-identification with the situation of the characters — to write, as it were, from inside their experience, which was also a generally lyric position. 

Here, in this poetic cycle, I worked vice versa in a mirror image of that approach; I tried to combine the objective position of analysis with poetic interpellation into the situation, and it seems to me that I arrived at a distinctive outcome. But to return to your question, I would all the same today say that these are two different forms of writing — different states or modes. In the 1990s my views were a little different, I was, maybe, a bit of an avant-gardist. Now I think that the critic, in distinction from the poet, has to think about the reader, who, possibly, has not seen the film or read the book. The critic should do everything possible in order for the reader who encounters the essay to be able, at least in part, to reconstruct the general situation under discussion. This is, we might say, a matter of basic respect for the reader.

Platt: The basic responsibility towards the readers of a critical essay.

Skidan: In the 1990s I wrote differently, thought differently, and it was a different time, too. The task then — and many people consciously formulated it in this way, including my friend, Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, from whom I learned a great deal — was to problematize canonical forms and generic distinctions. Arkadii, for instance, spoke directly about his poetic writing as a war machine in the sense of Deleuze and Guattari, and saw himself as a partisan who launches his war machine against the positions of regular state military formations with the goal of destroying them. In sum, during the 1990s a great deal was accomplished with regard to the destruction of the borders between poetry and prose, the critical essay and the poetic utterance. Now, as a result of the exhaustion and automatization of this device, and partly because I have adopted more politically articulated goals that are tied to a strategy of communication with the reader, with broader mass of readers than in the 1990s, I have moved away from this somewhat extremist partisan paradigm towards more transparent writing. At least this is true with regard to the critical essay: poetry, all the same, demands a certain blindness and a certain terrorism in relation to the reader. And if we link up here with the theme of violence in the films of Godard … 

Platt: I actually just wanted to ask you a question on that topic: is there a connection between violence in cinema and the violence of the destructive project in literature that you were just describing?

Skidan: These films, in their marrow, are about violence. In Godard, perhaps, this is in a somewhat parodic, “distanced” form, but in Bertolucci it’s straightforward, while in Antonioni it’s in a disguised form, yet nevertheless murder is at the center of the film. 

Platt: Herzog’s film is about violence in a pure form.

Skidan: Of course: colonization, the conquest of Indian tribes, of Indian territories.

Platt: With Godard, as well, we should note that this is the time of the Algerian War, a time of reaction. In the poem, you say that there are no more Red Brigades, but the theme of revolutionary terrorism is present in this film in overt form. 

Skidan: I agree. That theme is present in almost all of Godard’s films of the 1960s, beginning with The Little Soldier [Le Petit Soldat, 1960] which was banned by the censor in France and was released somewhat later than Breathless [À bout de souffle, 1960]. That first film already presents the persecution of the protagonist, the little soldier, by the OAS [Organisation armée secrète]. The film includes torture and violence in pure form, and there is the terrifying monologue of the protagonist about his complete disorientation and despair — about his inability to join any side of the conflict.

In Pierrot le Fou violence is already presented in a postmodernist key, it seems to me, with a very heavy emphasis on self-ironization. Following his earlier films that touched on this theme more directly, he now allowed himself to take a more abstract position. The deconstruction of genres goes hand in hand with self-ironization — it’s as though he were ridiculing his own political engagement and the political engagement of his generation, which was essentially powerless. This seems to me to be one of the central features of Pierrot le Fou in distinction from Godard’s other films. 

Platt: That project rhymes directly with the one that you described earlier — the project you shared with Arkadii Dragomoshchenko of violently destroying generic forms in the 1990s. Here we have the same thing: the violence of the 1960s, which turns into a weapon against genre. But this leads us to different questions — questions about how, since the time you wrote these poems and were thinking about the synthesis of critical and poetic writing, your views on criticism and on this distinction have changed. And the other parts of the formula also have a completely different meaning in our contemporary world. In our world, violence — both state and terrorist violence — has acquired an entirely different meaning than it held during the 1990s, one that is far less accessible to irony. It’s difficult to ironize about violence now. That’s question number one. 

And number two: despite the undefined political stance of Godard in this film, we can nevertheless link him to the traditions of left cultural criticism of that epoch. And this is evident in the film, too. There are connections, I think, to Guy Debord; and connections to Foucault. This is, all the same, the French left critical tradition surfacing in this early postmodernist work. Yet this too, in our contemporary world, has a rather different significance. Postmodernism and postmodernist aesthetics are today tied most commonly with state and political positions of the right, at least in common cultural and critical discourse. 

How do you look at these texts now? How have these stylistic and ideological positions shifted since then in your literary activity, in your works? 

Skidan: Certainly, 9/11 was a watershed event, after which any romanticization of armed violence became, at a minimum, somewhat problematic. Yet Godard, at least in Pierrot le Fou, does not reflect directly on violence. Primarily, it seems to me, he is studying the way violence is presented in cinema and in the media — how it is produced by mass media and exploited by state mechanisms of repression. And this is why his film has not lost its significance. 

In just this way, I think, in these poetic texts I sketch out the structures of representation of violence, rather than the way violence is used in real political conflict, which is a separate topic of discussion.  

If we turn to consideration of armed resistance to global capitalism — a resistance that continues today in various countries and in specific territories — it is far more stigmatized than it was in the 1960s. Today’s soldiers of the underground have far fewer allies in the cultural left and among leftist activists. This is also a symptom of how much the world has changed. In the era of the rise of national independence movements things were different, and armed struggle for independence was not equated with terrorism. In general, in armed terrorist conflict, as it came into being in Russia in the 1860s, beginning with the first Russian nihilist bomb-throwers, who became a thought object for Nietzsche —

Platt: Beginning with Karakozov.

Skidan: Yes, this individual and then mass terror speaks to desperation. To my mind, this was, both then and now, primarily a gesture of desperation, in which a group of people oriented towards revolution, yet lacking broad social support, has no alternative but to sacrifice itself. And to sacrifice the representatives of power.

Platt: Or simple bystanders.

Skidan: This is how the vicious circle of violence begins, from which there is no exit. Here, the revolutionary becomes the hostage, in Hegelian terms, of the logic of the vicious circle, a bad eternity of violence that ultimately grants the state and its repressive apparatus carte blanche for a new spiral of violence, restrictions, and measures of interdiction, which is precisely what happened after 9/11. The unprecedented wave of repressive measures, and measures for the control and surveillance of public space and private life, and of course the invasion of Iraq and development of the war — all of this was a reaction to these terrorist actions and terrorist conflict.

We’re running up here against an extraordinarily cruel irony of history. And we have to think about that, and think about it very deliberately because human lives and the very course of our history are at stake. For this reason, in distinction from the 1990s, in this regard I attempt to occupy a more self-reflexive and balanced position.

Strictly speaking, here, too, it is a risky business to carry out experiments leading in unknown directions, although sometimes a maximally risky business leads to maximally interesting results.

Platt: I’d like to return to the question of left politics and postmodernist aesthetics. The 1990s were the epoch of postmodernism, especially in Russia. It seems to me that today, in truly progressive aesthetic circles, and in particular in Russia, this term is deployed very rarely. But that’s true of the rest of the world, too, including in the States. What happened to postmodernism? Can we speak of the postmodernism of Godard? Before the postmodernist moment no one applied that term to him, although later he began to be described as an early version of the postmodern. But what happened to postmodernism as an aesthetic movement? How is it connected for you with the political positions of the 1990s, of the 2000s, of today?

Skidan: There are two postmodernisms. That is, perhaps, maybe there are many more. But we can distinguish two diametrically opposed positions in order to understand the commotion and confusion that has taken place in Russia and in the West. The first variant of postmodernism, the one that I am personally closer to, appears at the end of the 1960s and the start of the 1970s. This was, let’s say, an attempt to carry on with the dwindling modernist project in its most radical forms, including those of the early avant-garde, with its orientation on the revolutionary transformation of the world. This attempt, however, takes place against completely different historical conditions — to be blunt, in a situation when modernism and the avant-garde had already been institutionalized, becoming part of the museum and critical studies. And in this situation of museumification the postmodernists attempted to find means by which to extend, to continue the radical project of reevaluating the basic foundations of art and society. In some sense, this variant of postmodernism can be understood as neomodernism in a situation …

Platt: Is this just the neo-avant-garde, then?

Skidan: Yes, perhaps, in part. This attempt to carry the modernist project forward went hand in hand with a sober understanding that very much had changed in the world and that the simple continuation of the revolutionary impulse was impossible — that is, possibly, in order to continue it, it was necessary to do something completely opposite to it. This was one version of postmodernism — the critical, radical version — and it was important for me from the start, from the beginning of the 1990s. Furthermore, not only figures like Godard, but also Blanchot and Beckett were in my eyes representatives of the variant of postmodernism that inherited the radical impulse of modernism in conditions that it was completely unsuited to meet. In other words, they took the logic of modernism to the limit.

Platt: In a post-revolutionary era, when this aesthetic phenomenon could not find resonance in any pure form with revolutionary or catastrophic transformations.

Skidan: Because its political horizon has disappeared. And this is where we can draw a logical connection to the fallen, conservative variant of postmodernism, which consists of an absolutely contrary approach to the heritage of modernism and the avant-garde. Conservative postmodernism, in contrast, rejects the radical utopian horizon of modernism and attempts to reconcile its aesthetic principles and certain devices with market demand and the requirements of mass taste. This is something like a declaration: we have grown weary of abstraction and of the rejection of linear narrative, our cityscapes are dehumanized, let us return to normal, human subjects and lines in architecture, to figurative art, narrative, coherence.

This is an alternate version of postmodernism — this is Umberto Eco in literature and Tarantino in film, postmodernism in American architecture of the 1970s and 1980s and the trans-avant-garde in painting. In essence, this variant reduces to eclecticism: yes, we retain some formal elements of modernism, yet adapt them for a historically distinct, consumerist culture.

When people start talking about postmodernism, they continuously confuse these two variants, failing to draw distinctions, especially when these debates themselves take place in the newspapers, in journalism and the mass media. In Russia in the 1990s it was primarily the conservative trajectory of postmodernism that was taken up, in which the main stylistic markers are irony and citation, play with meaning and “exteriority” (“vnenakhodimost”), a certain relativism, since there was a need to destroy the old ideological constants and values, including the ideological monopoly of the Communist Party and fundamental conceptions of the historical process. For this purpose, of course, postmodernism with its irony, patchwork character, and carnivalesque recombination of forms served as an excellent weapon. In the mass consciousness, this trajectory is associated with Moscow conceptualism.

Platt: Yet this was also a moment when it seemed that precisely this aesthetic position was in resonance with an important social revolution, with the emancipation that came with the collapse of the Soviet Union. This was a new era precisely of that consumerist culture, of choice in stores, of Levi’s jeans for everyone, which for many at the start of the 1990s truly appeared to be a revolution.

Skidan: It was a revolution. It was just that Soviet people, lacking any experience of life under capitalism, had no way to anticipate how devastating its consequences would be in the social and cultural spheres, in the area of cultural production. The free market brought with it a total transformation of the function of the cultural worker and of the cultural field as a whole. After the jeans and the food appeared in stores, the cultural field was reformatted, step by step, under the sign of commercial interests and success. For serious, experimental-exploratory literature, which made up the lion’s share of underground and noncensored literary work, this was the arrival of hard times. The survival of such literature requires many sizable, interconnected communities and some sort of financial instruments or state programs that can support it.

Platt: Social institutions, organizations …

Skidan: All the old institutions connected with samizdat and unofficial culture collapsed, and new ones took shape very slowly and managed to make it only with great difficulty. The transitional period was extremely painful for the cultural field. And, of course, in the end anti-postmodernist. And the antimodernist reaction wasn’t far behind, leading to the restoration of a rather conservative mainstream, if we turn to the 2000s. Chronologically, this corresponds to the turn to the right of Russian politics, but that is a long discussion.

One way or another, an intense process of politicization of cultural activity took place against the background of the turn to the right in Russian culture and politics of the start of the 2000s. One of the most important launching points for me in this process was the tradition of French left philosophy, cinema, and art.

Internally, I was ready to begin rereading Marx and Lenin, but already through the prism of Althusser and Adorno, the Frankfurt School, and Benjamin. Benjamin was an important author for me throughout the 1990s, although I did not place any importance on his leftist positions at the time. In those years, I thought of him primarily as a thinker who makes it possible to understand certain aspects of new media, photography, and film, as well as their influence on poetic writing. He opened my eyes concerning all of this. But at the start of the 2000s I began to read Benjamin through Marx and through the tradition of thought that returns us to certain basic, simple things — to the fact of the social contradictions and class antagonism that were always present.

Platt: And are now more extreme?

Skidan: More complex.

Platt: Encapsulated in new forms.

Skidan: My turn to what we may call a more transparent form of writing, at least in essays, critical writing, my book reviews, and overviews, is linked to an understanding that my communicative strategy has to be more democratic, so that writing can help to create a certain community.

Platt: Let’s return to the poems. Yesterday, we watched Pierrot le Fou together, and so we are well positioned for this question: much has changed since the time you wrote this poem. Would it be any different if you wrote it today? In rereading this poem now, does it appear to reflect your reception of the tradition of Godard during the 1990s? How do you comprehend the film differently now? What are the details that strike you now as you watch it?

Skidan: I would of course write a different poem now. Since that time, I’ve worked on Godard quite a lot, in particular from a leftist perspective, read a lot about him, and watched other of his films that I hadn’t seen at the time I wrote this poem. I have an essay about his film Passion (1982), about the period following his return to auteur cinema following his experiments with political video and work with the “Dziga Vertov” group. I’ve also translated a number of his texts for the newspaper What is To Be Done? (Chto Delat’?). So I know quite a bit more about Godard now, but, as we know, the more one knows, the less capable one is to say anything. I see now a certain audacity in this poem but also a certain blindness. If I were to write about the film today, I would focus on the visual deconstruction present in the film, also on the way Godard works with texts — precisely in the spirit of Derridean grammatology.

Platt: Yes, he takes them apart letter by letter, starting with the initial titles.

Skidan: And there is a great deal of play with polysemy and individual words, as well as with generic conventions. I’d be more attentive to this now. The tradition of deconstructive language play exists long before Derrida and Godard and is present in Duchamp in the double-entendre titles of his works and in his letters to various correspondents. Before him it was present, and Duchamp recognized this, in Raymond Roussel, who had a huge influence on the young Duchamp. I didn’t know anything about any of this when I wrote this poem, although I might have guessed. But now this genealogical line is clear, and furthermore, there are parallels in Russian and Anglophone literature. So the context has correspondingly changed for me quite a bit.

Nevertheless, in the poem I managed to grasp certain important points and unobvious constellations of forces — the erotic passion and parodic montage is captured in the poem. There’s even a mention of Joyce (while we are on the topic of parody and puns). Today I would probably have gone deeper into the aspect of parody and deconstruction, linking that with a Derridean problematic — Derrida, too, we could mention, came around to political theory in his later works.

Platt: And to Marx as well. I think that this, perhaps, is also the right point on which to conclude our discussion.

Skidan: I agree.

Platt: Thank you very much, Aleksandr, for a rich conversation!

Skidan: Thanks to you, Kevin!

1. “Kino-Eye,” the title of which evokes Dziga Vertov’s early theorizations concerning documentary film, is devoted to Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972). “Pierrot le Fou” relates to Jean-Luc Godard’s film of that name (1965).