Boris Groys and the Specters of Marx

Dragan Kujundzic


[This paper was presented at the conference entitled "Reimagining Russia: Cultural and Artistic Transformations in Post-Soviet Russia," held at the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, Virginia, on April 3 and 4, 1998.]


We are talking today about Russia in the fissure of the double "after," or "post-" of Russian identity. One "after" can be heard in the title "Re-imagining Russia," in the "re," repetition of its invention. Russia is before the task of inventing itself, again. Russians face the task "Of doing something new, saying a new word of their own that hasn't been said before"; and you have no doubt recognized the source of this very old call for Russian newness, for re-imagining itself, by Raskolnikov (Dostoevsky 1991, 34). The other "after" is explicitly inscribed in the part of the title that with some haste, or urgency, announces that this first "after" of re-imagining will have taken place after, "post," communism has run its course. The new beginning starts with a fold, with a retardation or repetition: after communism, before communism, re-imagining Russia, after Russia. Why do I insist on this, speaking to this audience after everybody else has read their papers, thus adding another fold to this retardation? Because Russian history has always, from its inception in modern history at least since the end of the seventeenth century, been caught in this very retardation that we are thematizing today: on the one hand, its entrance into modernity was from the start marked by a certain post-historical sensibility, it had to go "after" the history of Europe when that history has already happened; the other dimension of this fold, the other side of its crease, is a sense of a Messianic advent given to it by the very retardation in history. For example, from Crime and Punishment again. At the end of the novel, Raskolnikov gazes at the vast spaces of Russia's post/pre history, "as if the days of Abraham and his flock has never passed," while a great heroic deed "still awaits for him" (Dostoevsky 1991, 628, 630). This Messianic advent is not completely unrelated to what in the history of philosophy has been associated with what is known as "the death of God." Russia's most prominent or grandiose aesthetico-political project, that we call "communism," is marked exactly by such an aesthetic eschatology. Let us say provisionally that that double retardation haunts Russia - let us prepare for the appearance of the specter, Messiah or a ghost.

In contemporary Russian philosophy and criticism few projects have so obsessively and systematically turned to thinking this "post-" of Russian national identity both before and after communism, thinking this eschatological delay/acceleration, even before the "demise" of the Soviet Union took place, than the project associated with the name of the philosopher Boris Groys.

I will rush to the end and say that the writings by Boris Groys, maybe more than any other philosophical project that I know of, described the transformations in Russia, particularly as it pertains to this sense of Russia's/Soviet "post" historicity, but he has also dwelled on the "post" Historical conditions of Russian modernism in general. Also, Groys' writings have themselves, on the level we could call "performative," represented a project that itself contributes to those very transformations he describes. Let me name a few most prominent titles: Stil' Stalin Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin (The Total Art of Stalinism), Dnevnik filosofa, Die Kunst des Fliehens, Utopiia I obmen, O novom, Konstruktion und Destruktion (in preparation).

Groys' writing stems in large part from the fact that he has taken seriously the lesson by Walter Benjamin from his essay "The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility": the dictum that political totalitarian practice is always, as a rule, made possible by the attempts to aestheticize the political. Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin, for example, may be read as a project which explores nothing but the relationship between aesthetic ideology and totalitarianism.

Another contribution by Groys to reading Russian Modernism could also be paraphrazed by a recourse to Walter Benjamin, this time to his "Theses on the Philosophy of History," in which Benjamin draws an analogy between historical time and messianic time: the former, the historical, being shot through with the messianic, opening a gate through which at any moment a Messiah may enter. Groys' writing -- especially essays such as "Russia and the West: in Search of Russian National Identity"; "Rossia kak podsoznanie zapada"; "Stradaiuushchaia kartina ili kartina stradaniia" (by the way, on Walter Benjamin), or "Lenin i Linkol'nobrazi sovremennoi smerti" -- may be seen as a systematic exploration of the nexus between Russian Messianism and Modernism.

Let us first elaborate on the question of the aesthetization of the political (say, on the question of re-imagining Russia). Such aesthetic ideology was from the start built on the foundations of the "new" Soviet society whose aftermath we are discussing today. "The world, promised by the new power in Russia after the October Revolution, was supposed to be not only more just . . . but was also, or even more, meant to become more beautiful . . .. The total submission of all life in the country, regulated to the most minute instances, turned the party leadership into a kind of artist for whom the world served as a material, eager to take any necessary form" (Groys 1993, 11).

This re-imagining of Russia took place in a certain "post" historical, "post" modern if you want, perspective, whereby for "the Bolshevik ideologues the zero-degree was a final reality, and all the art of the past did not represent a live history but a collection of dead things" (Groys 1993, 42).

That is why Groys can say that for the practitioners of Socialist Realism "history ended, and therefore in the post-historical reality everything was new for the Stalinist aesthetics. Therefore, that aesthetics had no need to strive to be formally new; its novelty was already guaranteed by the total newness of its content, by its supra-historicity" (Groys 1993, 49). This absolute, total newness, and here the Messianic is already introduced, Groys likens to "The Last Judgment of the World Culture" (Groys 1993, 39), thus reading a certain Apocalyptic dimension into this ultra-modernist project.

This collusion or a supplementary logic between messianism and modernism, announced already or most prominently in Blok's "The Twelve," where Jesus Christ leads the Bolshevik Revolution, found its most radical interpretation, its conceptual limit if we follow Groys, in Lenin's mausoleum, which then served as both a foundation of the Soviet totalitarian politics, and as a generative icon of all Socialist Realist strategies of representation or imagination. Lenin, "more alive than any live being" (Maiakovsky), represents a peculiar phenomenon in the history of religion. Curiously, it is in the very body of the leader of an atheistic, communist revolution, that the messianic teleology found its literal embodiment. The notion of the "death of God" and the chiliastic ecstasy that obsessively permeated the entire 19th Century Russian literature and culture, was projected, in the most rigorous manner, on the icon/mummy of Lenin that, says Groys, "has all the signs of a final abandonment . . . died in a final and absolute manner, and no appellation to him is possible . . . no transformation, no resurrection" (Groys 1993, 65). Lenin's mummy closely resembles Hans Holbein's "Dead Christ in a Tomb," Dostoevsky's depiction of it in The Idiot, and his saying, after seeing Christ eternally, identically the same in his death on Holbein's picture, without any transcendental hope, that "one can lose faith watching this picture." This spectacular teleology of Lenin's mausoleum combines the conceptual conclusion of a literal, embodied messianism, with the representational rigor of the most accurate visual identity: the rigor mortis, of the simulatory and ideological power unprecedented in the history of the messianic tradition, the one which "turned the mausoleum into museum" (Groys, 1993, 64). The imago, which of course means the image of the dead, is at the core of this modernist re-imagining Russia.

Lenin's Birthplace, Ulyanovsk

Groys explores the implications of this totalizing aesthetic ideology which obliterated the border between mausoleum and museum in his essay "The Struggle Against the Museum, or Display of Art in Totalitarian Space." And the border, in its withdrawal, is to be found in Lenin's mausoleum itself. Lenin's mausoleum became a paradigm, a generative model of the subsequent "erasure of the museum and the extra-museum space in order to integrate the museum in the external world" or, which amounts to the same, "to represent the entire life as an object of aesthetic experiment. Totalitarianism is also such a making of the unified visual and imaginative space, in which a border between art and life, reflection and action, museum and practical life, disappears" (Groys 1990, 1).

Stalinist aesthetics, dominant, practically, with some transformations, all the way until Gorbachev's days, in any case the one constitutive of the Soviet aesthetic ideology, is motivated by the totalizing drive to overcome the difference between "art and life" (Groys 1990, 21). This totalizing imaginative performance "made both reality and its representation" (Groys 1990, 22) an impossible, hallucinogenic representative acceleration.

We should not forget, though, that the generative paradigm of this equation between "life" and its "representation," is to be found in Lenin's mausoleum. The mummy's absolute simulatory power stems from the fact that it emanates the Messianic teleology which, metonymically, by contiguity, permeated the entire Soviet space. It was made literally in its image, re-imagined after it, the messianic suffering spread throughout the Soviet representational and political space.

In that sense, the Soviet imaginary resembles to the description of the modernist innovation suggested by Groys in his "Innovation and Christianity," in which literalized in Lenin's mummy, "the God-like essence of Christ becomes exchanged for a rather profane destiny of the crucified criminal . . . [in Blok's "The Twelve" the twelve Bolsheviks led by Christ are also depicted as criminals] . . . therefore the cross in its double function as an instrument of punishment and an instrument of salvation, appears as a place of a possible innovative exchange of the profane world for the godly blessing. That is why the cross appears as, if you want, a ready-made, a center of the European culture. The new culture attempts to overcome the values of the past, but reproduces one and the same figure of the innovative exchange, which is the figure of Christianity itself, and by that same token, does not overcome its horizon" (Groys 1993, 194).

The process is best illustrated by Benjamin's essay "The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility" [Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit] in which, according to Groys, the famous loss of the aura in modern art or "the copy of the original becomes the place of the suffering of the original, its alienation, its passage trough the desert, its cross" (Groys 1993, 344). Malevich's notorious "Black Square," which was also intended by him as an icon, or the cross section of the cross, testifies to this kind of imaginative practice.

I would like to bring these reflections to the conclusion by drawing Dziga Vertovan analogy between two representational practices that are in tune with Groys' analysis, but also to tease out from Groys' analysis some of its most intriguing consequences. The first example comes from Dziga Vertov's Three Songs of Lenin [Tri pesni o Lenine] in whose work, Lenin, even dead, in 1925, is a fictional sight of immense mobility, the mobility of the specter of communism, not unlike the deceased Lenin in Vertov's Leninskaia kino-pravda (The Leninist Film-Truth) from 1924. By 1934 many things have changed. The regime has, for various reasons, not unrelated to a certain "ontologization of the specter" (Derrida), started to cadaverize, totalitarian terror set in, freezing and mummifying all political mobility. Lenin's body is exposed in the mausoleum, and, as Groys writes in his essay "Lenin and Lincoln: the Images of Modern Death," the "endless passing of the inquisitive masses, for whom the mummy has been exhibited, guarantees that the corpse will remain corpse. . .." The revolutionary transformation becomes impossible, since what is displayed in the mausoleum is "the eternal repetition of one and the same," which "relinquishes any hope of transcendental transformation" (Groys 1993, 354). Three Songs of Lenin begins ambitiously with the same vibrant vigilance of the cine-eye (Vertov's invention of the camera-eye), capturing life and bringing back the sight to the blind. The "first song" actually narrates the return of sight: a Muslim woman chants how, before Lenin came to take her veil off, she "led a blind life, in a black prison, without light."

Byzantine Psalm, Eleni Karaindrou (composer); Georgia Voulvi (voice)

The Christian connotations are more than obvious here. But those same eyes, once having regained their sight, can see only that Lenin is no more. The masses, once on the verge of entering the future, now "are silent"; "the masses move" ( "massy dvizhutsia, massy molchat") but only as an incessant flow of the mourning bodies near the dead leader displayed in situ. But now, the cine-eye records only a cadaverization, or, rather, fetishization, of the corpse. The process which Derrida, in the Specters of Marx, calls "the effect of an ontological treatment of the spectrality of the ghost. . . leading to the terrifying failure and totalitarian perversions to which it gave rise"; an attempt to "make sure that the dead will not come back: quick, do whatever is needed to keep the cadaver localized, in a safe place, decomposing right where it was inhumed, or even embalmed as they liked to do in Moscow" (Derrida 1994, 91, 97). Vertov's Three Songs of Lenin is an attempt to resuscitate the mobility of the cine-eye and to return the sight out of the "dark room, blindness, the black prison" of history. The cine-eye wants to see life, again, maybe for the last time. But all that it reproduces are endless, long shots of the cadaverized body, infinitely identical with itself, the arrested spectrality of the specter, the ontologization of the specter to which this endless sight contributes, the dead specter of the sclerotized gaze. What remains is mourning for the past mobility of the cine-eye by now only a memory in the cinematic archives, a mummy itself. Like a cadaver, the cine-eye cannot close itself, it remains open and fixed on the corpse. Seeing the dead Lenin, seeing, eternally, its own end. The end. It can only fill itself with tears. What remains, is, forever, mourning. God is dead. The cine-eye weeps.

Dziga and Camera

The second example is contemporary, and comes from Theo Angelopoulos' Ulysses' Gaze. In it, a huge, Lenin's Headfifty ton statue of Lenin is loaded, in Plovdiv, onto a barge, and sent upstream, on the Danube, passing Belgrade, Novi Sad, Vukovar, Budapest, Regensburg, to Germany. But this Lenin sailing to Germany is different. A ruin, a dismembered ghost of its own spectrality, an advent of messianism without the Messiah, country, national belonging, or anchor. It unsettles both the "original" mummy tied to one place, localized as a center of a national or nationalist solidity of its resting place: this other mummy is also a disembodied virtual simulation, or a ghost without teleology. "Altogether other. Staging [for] the end of history. Let us call it hauntology" writes Derrida in the Specters of Marx (1994, 10). And this is, maybe, its emancipatory promise: that, whatever future is opened by its circulation, it will be marked by an un-heard of inventiveness, in which all our certainties about "after," "Russia," "communism," will be unsettled, re-invented and re-imagined. As the barge inches upstream on the Danube, masses run along the riverbanks, kneel, cross themselves, and pray. What do they see in this giant specter of Lenin? A ghost, a Jesus Christ, Messiah or a demon? An image? Or simply a ruin? The uncertainty is haunting. So I urge you to embrace this messianism without the Messiah, this re-appearance of the specter, and to embrace it exactly as a return, a re-imagination, as it re-enters/exits the stage of World History. It circles, it is coming. "A specter is haunting Europe, a specter of Communism."





Works Cited

Derrida, Jacques. The Specters of Marx. Tr. Peggy Kamuf. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. Tr. David McDuff. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.

Groys, Boris. Utopiia i obmen. Znak: Moskva, 1993.

---------------. "The Struggle Against the Museum, or Display of Art in Totalitarian Space." (Manuscript, 1990).